The whole world was watching as Scots went to the polls yesterday to vote “Yes” or “No” to Scottish independence – and those with an agenda were watching a little bit closer than the rest. The Kremlin decided to send Igor Borisov, an accredited observer, and three other Russians to Edinburgh to watch the vote take place. Their conclusion? That the vote did not meet international standards because the room the vote counting took place in was too large, with observers only allowed on the perimeter. Borisov also observed that “nobody was interested in who was bringing in the voting slips. There were no stamps or signatures as the bulletins were handed over.” The Kremlin propaganda channel RT also weighed in, claiming that the 86% turnout resembled North Korean levels of turnout and was evidence that the vote might have been rigged.
The whole story from The Guardian can be accessed here.
As the article points out, the Kremlin had a vested interest in Scotland voting yes. Many thought that a yes vote would affirm the validity of the Crimean referendum and thus justify Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s eastern peninsula. The West has denounced the referendum, which was planned only three weeks in advance, and has since refused to allow similar referendums in other parts of Ukraine. Accepting the results of the Scottish referendum (which has been in the works for nearly a year after passage in the Scottish Parliament in November 2013) is therefore a sign of the West’s hypocrisy, say Russian nationalists.
This story is, essentially, a PR move by Russia an an attempt to work the binaries on an international political scale. Russia, having no legs left to stand on regarding election validity, has decided to attack the West and frame Western elections negatively. By framing the validity of Scotland’s referendum in a negative way, Russia hopes to cast the referendum(s) it has a vested interest in in a positive way.
In the same way that politicians who try to work the binaries relied on the theory of rational voters, as described in Chapter 5 of Jeffrey Alexander’s book “Performance of Politics,” Russia is relying on the international community’s proclivity to be unbiased. If they are truly unbiased, Russia is trying to say, then they will have no choice but to question the results. Since the international community has used Russia’s record high turnout (and yes, North Korea’s) to question their election results, then the same logic should apply. If the international community accepts Scotland’s “No” vote, then it should also accept Crimea’s “Yes” vote – or it can no longer claim to be unbiased and it’s just as evil and Euro-centric as Russia has always claimed it to be.
Looking purely at the Kremlin’s rhetoric, it seems like they’ve caught the West in a trap. And to Russian nationalists and Russian citizens exposed only to Russian propaganda, it very well might seem that way. This PR attempt may be successful at convincing some Russians of the West’s hypocrisy. But outside of the Federation, this rhetoric is laughable. This argument will not work for those not already inclined towards a Putin regime. The facts simply don’t support it.
First, let’s look at the claim of record high turnout. The best way to look at this is with a heat map (yay beautiful data!):
This diagram is from an academic paper that can be accessed here, that explains a method of detecting election fraud. Each dot represents a voting district, and the hotter the color the more concentrated the districts. This diagram shows that Russia had a high concentration at the top right corner – meaning that there were a good number of districts that had both a 100% voter turnout and a 100% of votes cast for the winner. According to this paper, that is a clear sign of election fraud.
Although there is no heat map of Scotland’s referendum vote, this does show the hypocrisy of Russia’s claim. There is little question that Russia’s elections aren’t legitimate. This is necessary to undermining Russia’s attempt to work the binaries, and understanding why the rest of the world will not take Russia’s claims seriously.
Furthermore, Russia’s claim that 86% (or nearly 90% as the Russian media reports it) is near North Korea levels is interesting… given that North Korea has a turnout of almost 100% every election. So naturally, one could argue that any higher-than-normal turnout is approaching North Korea levels. And I won’t even get into the hypocrisy behind this statement, given the Kremlin’s long history of supporting said North Korean elections.
Furthermore, the BBC reported before the election that turnout rates were expected exceed 80%, making 86% hardly a surprise.
Just as McCain was unable to work the binaries in his favor and had to resort to polluting Obama’s binaries, Russia is now trying to pollute the West’s binaries. And just as McCain failed due to the fact that he was unable to provide enough positive differentiation, Russia will fail as well due to the fact that it has no credibility in conducting its own elections.
Alexander, J. (2010). The Performance of Politics. Chp. 5.
Harding, L. “Russia cries foul over Scottish independence vote.” BBC News. Web. 19 September 2014.
Klimek, P., Y. Yegorov, R. Hanel, and S. Thurner. “Statistical Detection of Systematic Election Irregularities.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109.41 (2012): 16469-6473. Web.