TCS Daily

Russia's "Controlled Democracy" Strikes Back

By Ariel Cohen - December 11, 2003 12:00 AM

The tectonic plate shift in Russian politics, which occurred in parliamentary elections Sunday would make Russia diplomatically more prickly and less hospitable to foreign investment.

There are three winners and two losers in the elections. The big losers are the democratic and free market forces, and the business community.


Union of Right Forces (URF), a center-right party, and Yabloko ("Apple"), a liberal-left party, failed to launch viable party structures around Russia's 89 regions. They also had no new ideas to address the electorate's needs. They lost votes to Putin's United Russia, to Motherland, and to voter apathy: Turnout was 54 percent -- 8 percent less than in 1999, when Yabloko and URF last got into the Duma.


As Putin has embraced the pro-presidential United Russia party and to some degree, the nationalist-socialist Motherland party, and as the government-controlled TV -- the only one in Russia -- followed suit, the bottom dropped from under the democrats.


Both Yabloko and URF were painted as too pro-Western, and insufficiently patriotic. Center-right politicians appeared rich, spoiled, and detached from ordinary Russians' everyday woes. It also didn't help that highly unpopular former privatization czar Anatoly Chubais has emerged as a de-facto leader of the center right. And the hated tycoons have poured support to the liberal forces who became viewed as their puppets.


As the statist and pro-Putin forces became stronger, the business community weakened. According to a Cabinet insider, big business should forget about dictating a legislative agenda in the Duma, as they did throughout in the "roaring '90s." The liberal parties they supported have not gotten in. Two days after the elections Putin signed a new law imposing additional energy export tariffs. And with a strong signal from the electorate that wants oligarchs' blood, Putin may bring down additional industrial conglomerates, from Lukoil to Alpha Group.


Putin on Top


The greatest winner is President Vladimir Putin. His party, United Russia, won 37 percent of the vote, and together with its allies has come close to mustering a two-thirds majority necessary to change the constitution, including extending the president's term in office beyond 2008. It is the first time in the post-communist Russian history that "the party of power" dominates the legislature.


It is Putin's poise and judgment in using his newly found parliamentary support and popularity that will define his relationship with the West and his place in history. Putin's resistance to the virulent nationalism and populist socialism of his party's hangers-on will make a difference between Russia's progress and failure.


United Russia capitalized on three major developments: Putin's wild popularity -- up to 78 percent according to the International Republican Institute poll. It got a boost from a crackdown on corruption undertaken by Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov, who is the United Russia party leader, and is rumored to become Speaker of the Duma or Prime Minister. Finally, it thrived on jailing the billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The majority of Russians perceive oligarchs as corrupt, thieving, and detached from the impoverished masses and the struggling middle class.


The second and third winners, respectively, are socialist/nationalist newcomer Motherland and rabble-rouser Vladimir Zhirinovsky's "Liberal Democrats." Motherland, led by former communist party economic guru Sergey Glazyev and former Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman hard-liner Dmitry Rogozin, won 9 percent of the vote. Its message of nationalization at home and nationalism abroad, of high taxes and foreign adventures, are a fire-sure prescription to derail Putin's proclaimed goal of doubling GDP by the year 2010. Economic reformers in the Kremlin are disgusted.


Motherland was a creation of the Kremlin's cunning consultants, who were tasked with stealing votes from the geriatric (and chauvinistic) communists. They succeeded -- too well. However, just as Dr. Frankenstein, the Kremlin is horrified of its creation. Senior government officials recognize that they don't control Glazyev, and that younger and feistier Motherland team in the Duma will be more of a nuisance than the predictable and dumb communists who never learned the game of competitive politics.


Zhirinovsky, the third winner, doubled his vote to 11.6 percent. Before the elections he got in yet another televised fist-fight, and declared that Chechnya should not be discussed in the media. Instead, he suggested using death squads to kill off entire Chechen villages. Today, when suicide bombers tear apart Moscow civilians almost weekly, tough guys finish first.


What It Means for Washington


The Bush Administration, battling its own terrorist threat, has a strategic interest in continuing a dialogue with the Russian President, the government, and the people. However, it has to strike a balance between defense of democracy, cooperation in the global war on terrorism, developing Russian energy resources, and encouraging foreign investment.


To achieve these goals, the Bush Administration should express support for the democratic forces of Russia. The White House is right to endorse the statement of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), of which the U.S. is a member. The statement called the elections "unfair" and was highly critical of the government controlling all TV channels. More needs to be done, including expanding exchanges with Russia, providing support to democratic non-governmental organizations (NGOs), independent media, and nascent forces of freedom through the National Endowment for Democracy, International Republican Institute, and private foundations.


President Bush should communicate directly to Putin that to continue Russian integration in Western frameworks such as G-8 and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Russia needs to follow Western political models and boost the rule of law.


Finally, Washington needs to warn Moscow that further abuse of the legal system by the executive branch which leads to extra-judicial destruction of major economic players in Russia may result in shrinking of foreign investment, thus jeopardizing Putin's stated goal of doubling GDP by 2010.


Russia now has a Duma that is more nationalist and less democratic than before. It is in everyone's interest that Russia pursues a civic society and free markets amidst political liberty. The U.S. and the West should not hesitate reminding Moscow about this.


Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies at Heritage Foundation


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