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Opinion: Results to Order and a Blow to Democracy

Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed his allies’ victory in parliamentary polls as a boost to democracy. Critics say the pro-Kremlin majority spells the death of democracy in Russia. Were the results made to order?

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A billboard for the main pro-Kremlin party, United Russia, in a Moscow thoroughfare.

Vladimir Putin should be very satisfied with the democracy he’s engineered: parties that he more or less controls will certainly occupy more than two-thirds of all the seats in the new Duma. And with that, Putin technically has the ability to alter the country’s constitution. He will most likely make use of that ability to run for a third term in office in 2008 -- something the constitution currently forbids.

Sunday’s parliamentary elections practically guarantee that Putin will be returned to office with an overwhelming majority in upcoming presidential poll scheduled for March 2004.

Death of democracy?

What do elections in Russia have to do with democracy? The short answer is: very little, as the winners seem preordained. Putin’s own party, United Russia, is a good example. The President’s political followers had all the might of the state apparatus behind them, not to mention the support of numerous governors and local mayors.

At the government’s expense, Putin’s emissaries flew from constituency to constituency. The state-steered propaganda machine, and especially state-run television, showed the United Russia candidates in the best light, while at the same time, their opponents were either talked down or completely ignored by the broadcast media.

Putin’s main opposition -- the communists -- bore the brunt of such treatment, losing half of their percentage of the vote. This weakening of Lenin’s party was obviously one of the Kremlin’s strategic goals. Contributing to this goal was the creation of the Motherland party under the leadership of the rhetorically gifted economist Sergei Glazev, who was once in the communist party leadership.

Thanks to the support of the presidential apparatus, Motherland was able to jump the fiver-percent hurdle the first time around the track. Glazev’s gains were, in the end, the communists’ losses.

The same applies to the amazingly good results for Vladimir Zhirinovsky. His Liberal Democratic Party -- a group that’s neither liberal nor democratic, but ultra-nationalistic -- got almost as many votes as the communists.

Neither of the small democratic parties, Yabloko and the Union of Right-Wing Forces, managed to secure any seats in parliament.

Many voters appeared to have punished Yabloko’s leader, Grigory Yavlinsky, for the fact that his party received financial backing from former YUKOS oil company chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has since been arrested on fraud and tax-evasion charges. There seemed to be little understanding among voters for the failure of both democratic parties to unite.

Yavlinsky, a popular figure in the West, is now facing the prospect of political obscurity.

Parliament obsolete

What political role will this Duma play in the years to come? It might sound odd to Western ears, but in Russia’s controlled democracy, it will play only a very minor role.

Bills will mostly come from the presidential apparatus, be revised by the parliamentary floor leaders, and be given a final blessing by parliament. Large debates, as could be heard in the Duma of the 1990’s, won’t be taking place.

The parliament isn’t there to keep tabs on the presidential powers or the government -- it’s the other way around. The actual politics of Russia won’t be discussed in the parliamentary chambers, but rather in the back rooms of the Kremlin. Small wonder that few Russians view the role of parliament with respect -- that probably explains why only every second Russian went out to vote.

The fact is, Putin emerges from the parliamentary vote much stronger than he was before. But his victory has dealt a blow to Russian democracy, and his style of governing is a burden on civil society.

On the evening of the election, Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin spoke out. He warned against Putin and the pro- Kremlin bloc becoming too powerful, saying that, just like in communist times, the situation could get out of control. And who could know the potential threat to Russia’s democracy better than Yeltsin, the conquerer of Moscow’s totalitarian regime.

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  • Date 08.12.2003
  • Author Miodrag Soric
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  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/4Pxy
  • Date 08.12.2003
  • Author Miodrag Soric
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/4Pxy