The Winner

Russia’s elections: a step back for democracy, a step forward for Putin.

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He wasn’t even running, but the big winner in Monday’s dodgy parliamentary elections in Russia was Vladimir Putin. A largely Putin-friendly alliance swept to victory, leaving the president — a former KGB officer whose authoritarian tendencies were already giving pause in and out of Russia — with more influence and power than any president before him in democratic Russia.

International observers voiced concern about the fairness of the elections. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the election symbolized a step backward in Russia’s democratization process because Putin-friendly parties were given a hugely disproportionate amount of airtime by the state-owned media, so that pro-Kremlin messages dominated the campaign. The OSCE conceded that the elections can be characterized as free insofar as the casting and counting of votes was concerned — but far from fair.

The success in the elections is just the latest stage in Putin’s drive to consolidate his power, which threatens to return Russia to some form of despotism.

The Moscow Times comments on some of Putin’s unorthodox power-grabbing tactics:

“Analysts said the results of Sunday’s poll come as the culmination of President Vladimir Putin’s drive to consolidate his power. That bid began with moves to rein in the power of regional governors shortly after he took over the presidency in 2000 and sped up this year with the arrest of Russia’s richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in a $1 billion fraud case that many have called an attempt to flatten the oil magnate’s political ambitions. Khodorkovsky had been seen as trying to lock in a loyal faction in the Duma in a possible attempt to become president.

“Putin’s bureaucratic consolidation has ended with these elections. It is farewell to the Yeltsin era,” said Lilia Shevtsova, a senior political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
“What type of democracy can there be if there are no democratic parties in the Duma?” she said.”

All over the world, observers are fearing the increasing centralization and consolidation of power that this election will bring about. The Christian Science Monitor thinks that Russia now has a “pseudodemocracy to go along with its pseudocapitalism.”

The LA Times thinks that “the elections have set Russia back:

“Don’t believe President Vladimir V. Putin’s claim that Russia’s parliamentary elections brought democracy closer. The balloting Sunday represented a lamentable step back toward authoritarian rule.

Putin has given his rule the trappings of democracy by allowing opposition parties to criticize his government and by not interfering directly with elections. But the government’s seizure of private television networks meant United Russia’s message was heard above all others.”

The Financial Times echoes this view and warns of a growing authoritarianism on Putin’s part:

“For Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, Sunday’s parliamentary election was a triumph. But for the cause of political freedom in Russia it was a serious defeat. The forces of authoritarianism marshaled by the Kremlin have pushed further into territory once occupied by democracy.

As independent monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe pointed out, the authorities corrupted the election through their control over the administrative machine and the media. In the process they have created the most loyal, and the most nationalist, parliament since the end of communism.”

With 98% of the votes counted, Unified Russia, the party that is most loyal to Putin (in fact, the Moscow Times called it “the party that ran on a program with zero content apart from loyalty to the president”) has won 37.1% of all votes which currently translates to 222 seats in the 450-member Duma, the lower house of parliament. This means that they are just four seats away from securing a majority, with which they could adopt and change laws at will. Coming in second in the elections were the Communists, who have lost more than half of their votes from the previous elections with a mere 12.7%.

Putin was already very powerful, but the new constellation means he has to spend even less time concerning himself with negotiations and mediation. Putin is expected to win the upcoming presidential elections in March, largely thanks to a lack of meaningful opposition. Many commentators also expect Putin to use the electoral gain in the parliamentary elections to try and alter the constitution, so as to allow him to run for a third term in the presidential elections in 2008. Putin himself has dismissed any such speculations: “There has been enough talk about the need to change the constitution. I completely agree that the present constitution provides a basis for stability in our society and that it hasn’t been used to its maximum potential…. Our task is to keep [the constitution] and to make the most of what it offers in order to develop the country.”

Here is the Moscow Times again with some bleak predictions for Russia’s future:

In many respects, today’s Russia is like rump Yugoslavia under the rule of Slobodan Milosevic: a failed, totally corrupt nationalistic police state that was unsuccessfully fighting endless wars to build a “Greater Serbia.” Milosevic, an outspoken nationalist, was spending money to prop up special police and other paramilitaries he believed to be loyal, while the Yugoslav armed forces were collapsing.

With fascists and nationalistic statists dominating the Duma and the Kremlin, it is virtually inevitable that Russia will attempt to dominate the post-Soviet landmass — installing pro-Moscow governments, destabilizing those that refuse to integrate and annexing neighboring territories.
This “Great Russia” project will fulfill the popular nationalist dream of reuniting all Russian-speaking populations in one realm — a reconstructed rump Soviet Union. The same process will also create a new entity, of which Putin can become head after his constitutional term as president ends in 2008.

In the new political situation, there is zero possibility of any meaningful political settlement in Chechnya. The decaying Russian military will continue an endless fray in the Caucasus and also may be involved in other hopeless adventures. The inevitable casualties will be covered up by the relentless propaganda that has become our media’s trademark.”


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