Poles Very Nervous Over Russian Election Results

The elections to the Russian Duma that took place last Sunday throughout the Russian Federation resulted in an overwhelming victory for the “Jedna Rosja” or “United Russia” party widely seen to be the vehicle of Russian president Vladimir Putin. But take a little closer look – you don’t need to go any further down than third place – and what else do you see? You see the “Liberal Democratic Party,” but don’t let that innocuous name fool you: that’s the right-wing nationalistic party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Remember him? He was one of those bizarre politicians whom the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 enabled to crawl out from underneath his rock to ride the crackpot vote to the Duma. Back in the early 1990s Zhirinovsky could be counted upon to utter the most amazing, and alarming statements – for example, I recall that he once threatened one of, or all, the Baltic states with invasion – that you would hope never to hear from a leading politician from the world’s second nuclear power. After providing a few years of that sort of bizarre comic relief, Zhirinovsky’s “Liberal Democrats” faded away in subsequent elections. But now they’re back – to a position in the legislature almost even with the Communists.

I’m no expert in Russia or Russian politics (and I don’t read Russian). But that’s not a problem in the EuroSavant context, which rather calls upon me to pass along the wisdom put forth on a given issue by some European country’s press. Today it’s time to look at the results of those recent Russian elections from the viewpoint of a country that knows Russia all too well: Poland. And there’s scarcely any good news to be found.

We turn first to our tried-and-true Polish source, Gazeta Wyborcza, which provides enormous coverage – I counted ten articles on-line, and we’re certainly not going to get to them all here. Naturally, most of them are commentary of one sort or another; but let’s get oriented first with a look at Gazeta’s main news coverage, from reporter Marcin Wojciechowski, entitled Putin Takes Everything. The elementary details: in the elections to the Duma, carried out on the basis of individual constituencies and party lists (but that’s no problem, German elections, for example, are run the same way), “United Russia” came in first by far in terms of the number of its affiliated deputies elected to the Duma (37%).* That was no surprise; one thing that was a surprise is that the true “liberal” parties, representing a Western outlook and political and economic reforms (namely “Jabloko” – which means “apple” in Russian – and the Union of the Right) did not even attain the minimum 5% level of votes required to stay represented in the Duma. (Together they did attain somewhere around 6-8% of the votes in total – but they are separate parties, they campaigned separately, and so they both separately disappear from the legislature.) Another surprise is what Wojciechowski calls the “collapse” of support for the Communist Party; they were the ones who used to operate as the main opposition to the government, but their vote in these elections halved to around 13%.


Now that he has this tremendous bloc of support in the Duma for his government, what does Putin intend to do with it? First of all, realize that Jedna Rosja together with the nationalist parties of the right and left (Zhirinovsky’s party and the Rodina – “Homeland” – party, respectively) together have two-thirds of the seats in the Duma – enough to push through changes to Russia’s constitution. It’s clear that Putin is a sure thing for re-election to the presidency next March, but, still, it’s getting tiresome nonetheless to have to go through the motions like this so often. So first on his list is a constitutional amendment changing the president’s term in office from four years to seven.

But that’s not so important in itself; much more interesting are the administrative changes the Kremlin now has in mind to solidify its control over the country and especially its lucrative sales to foreign customers of raw materials. Independent governors of Russian provinces, who themselves have a certain constituency behind them since they presently are elected, are also rather hard to deal with sometimes; so a change is in the works to make them appointed once again. (Another change would radically reduce the number of those provinces, from the current 88 down to 15, or even 8.) And there is even another plan – revealed to Gazeta by Andriej Riabow of the Carnegie Center in Moscow – to construct a separate federal state out of the entire stretch of Russia’s north, from the border with Norway eastward to Kamchatka. This superokreg surowcowy, or “raw-material super-district,” yields Russia’s greatest treasures of national resources by far – oil, precious metals, timber, etc. – and it would be governed directly by the government in Moscow, which therefore would enjoy direct access to the revenues the sale of all those raw materials would produce. Private companies would still be involved in their exploitation, but those companies would be closely regulated by the Kremlin – and we can see in the arrest a few months ago of Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky a warning-shot that Putin no longer intends to allow such companies the free latitude they have enjoyed in the past.


Now, what about the commentary? Let’s turn first to Waclaw Radziwinowicz’s piece for Gazeta, entitled In Russia A New Regime Has Been Built – Electoral Dictatorship. He starts out discussing the problems political scientists have faced in deciding just what to call Russia’s post-1991 political system – which clearly has hardly deserved more traditional labels like “liberal democracy.” They’ve tried “guided democracy,” or “democracy, but somewhat adjusted” (nieco podkrecona). After the results of Sunday’s elections, however, consensus is shifting to the label in Radziwinowicz’s title, “electoral dictatorship,” or a system “in which the government designates to the people whom they should support, and the people then obediently vote for those so designated.”

How does this work? Simple: those in the Kremlin “do everything so that politicians whom the government does not desire, whether in parliament or the governorships, have no chance. They don’t appear on television screens, and newspapers are quick to find something with which to discredit them. If one of them gets too popular, he is suddenly erased from the list of candidates. If they can count on piles of money from some sponsor – just as Jabloko could count on the millions of Mikhail Khodorkovsky – their sponsor is locked up.” This works so well, Radziwinowicz writes, that after the elections the results rarely need to be – as they say – “prettified” (“podmalowywac“) too much.

And so parties like Jabloko and the Union of the Right find themselves out of the Duma, because the Kremlin wanted them out of the Duma. Also out of the Duma are politicians like Sergei Kowaliow, the self-styled “agent of Western influence on Russia,” who when he was in the legislature pushed for an investigative commission to look into who really was behind the explosions in apartment buildings in Russia in the fall of 1999 that so inflamed the populace (thinking that it must have been Chechen rebels) that the second Chechen War promptly got under way. (On a personal note, all the Russians I have had contact with – and, since I have never been to Russia, these have been intelligent and cosmopolitan types across-the-board, capable of traveling to and surviving in a foreign land – say that the KGB was behind those explosions.) And those who get to stay in the legislature, Radziwinowicz notes, are figues like General Valentin Varennikov, involved in the Soviet generals’ coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in August, 1991, and the only one to have refused the subsequent amnesty granted to the perpetrators by President Boris Jeltsin.

But that’s no surprise, because hard-line nationalism is now the common denominator across almost all Duma factions. Rejoicing in the disappearance of the truly liberal parties from the legislature, Vladimir Zhirinovsky addressed them as follows: “There’s no place for you in Russia. We are a great, Northern, military power. The only ideology that is right for us is the idea of empire.” For the far-too-many now in the legislature with this point of view, the very idea of an independent Ukraine, or Belarus, is ridiculous. “The election results to the Duma are a serious threat to Russia’s neighbors,” Radziwinowicz concludes. “The Kremlin has shown that it no longer needs the fig-leaf once provided it by the symbolic presence in parliament of delegates espousing liberal, Western values.”


In an accompanying interview entitled Russia Returns to its Authoritarian Tradition, Professor Igor Klamkin of Moscow University disagrees slightly with Radziwinowicz. According to Prof. Klamkin, the Kremlin might have slightly miscalculated: it did want to keep parties like Jabloko and the Union of the Right around for that “fig leaf,” so as to not get the neighbors and foreign observers too alarmed at what was going on. But above all it wanted the nationalist parties (i.e. Zhirinovsky’s and “Rodina”) to do so well as to seriously weaken the Communists. It made this desire reality in the practical ways already summarized by Radziwinowicz – the “Liberal Democrats” and Rodina could get on TV, were not harassed by the local authorities, etc. But things went too far, to the point that they also weakened the liberal parties and drove them out of the Duma.

With these results, according to Prof. Klamkin, the imperfectly democratic, but nonetheless democratic Russian political regime of the 1990s has died, and the country has returned to its authoritarian traditions. Unfortunately, the Kremlin has also made itself dependent on and vulnerable to nationalist demagogues, who could wind up blocking any remaining reform program the government intends to institute. The truly liberal parties have once last throw of the dice in March’s presidential elections; not that they have a chance of winning them, even if they manage to unite around a single, attractive candidate, but if they can win at least 10% to 12% of that vote, then they can show that they are still around as a factor to be dealt with. Otherwise, they’ll be off the political map.

Over in the other main Polish daily, Rzeczpospolita, there is also plenty of comment on the Russian election results – although Rzeczpospolita conveniently puts it all on one big page. Pawel Reszka’s reporting up top basically reports the facts that we already know; more interesting is the interview he conducts below with Aleksander Bim, a Russian political analyst. Reszka notes the strange fact that those who are poor, and those who are disappointed with their lot in life and in what Russia has become since the break-up of the Soviet Union, tend to vote for the government! “That’s a Russian phenomenon,” Bim explains, since the electorate tend not to connect their misfortune with the president. Indeed, Putin is generally viewed as some sort of national savior, and this is reflected in the very nature of the victorious “Jedna Rosja” party. Strangely, it never talked about its political program; it was enough to gain the great success that it did that it was widely known to be President Putin’s party. Bim also comments on the impact on the election that Khodorkovsky’s arrest had: It certainly helped the government’s image, since in Russia everyone hates the so-called “oligarchs” – even the middle class. Yet Bim doesn’t think that his arrest was a deliberate political act, designed to provoke this sort of support. It was much more simple: Khodorkovsky was refusing to play by the implict rules, and was emerging as a major political rival to the president. Naturally, he had to be dealt with, and was.

Going back to Gazeta Wyborcza, one of its articles is actually a review of comments on the election in the Russian press. From Wiedomosti (which simply means “newspaper” in Russian): It’s important that, with the new Duma, Russia does not transform itself into an authoritarian regime like we see in Belarus or Turkmenistan, where the parliament is only for window-dressing. So we expect the new Duma to continue supporting democracy. That means above all freedom of expression (stated as wolnosc slowa, or “freedom of the word”), independence of the courts, and limits to bureaucratic power. Maksim Glikin writing in Niezawisimaja Gazieta (“Independent Gazette”): The Duma elections were just the prologue to the presidential elections of next March. No one doubts that Vladimir Putin will win a second term, but the opposition will still want to try to at least deny him an outright victory in the first round, for that will demonstrate that there are still political alternatives, that the Kremlin does not have a complete monopoly of political power in Russia. Will that happen? That will at least certainly be the main issue surrounding that presidential election.


Then we go to Dziennik Polski, and its article Russia is United, which is noteworthy mainly for comments on the election from leading figures you might have actually heard of before. Former president Boris Jeltsin, when he visited the local polls, let slip that he was voting na mlodych, or “for the young guys.” This is interpreted as meaning that he voted for the Western liberals, probably the Union of the Right, whose main figures (Anatoly Chubais, Yegor Gaidar, and others) actually occupied executive positions and had influence on the Kremlin when he ruled over it. Mikhail Gorbachev, on the other hand, was very skeptical about the electoral results: “We have observed the electoral campaign [is this the “imperial we,” that even EuroSavant himself occasionally likes to use?], and it is clear that these elections will not produce the sort of Duma that is ready to take upon itself the responsibility for [finding, producing] essential solutions. The administrative element in it is too large.” And from Russian premier Mikhail Kasjanow – that’s the guy who works under Putin as day-to-day head of government – we merely have “This incident is also an example of democracy,” uttered as he was pelted by eggs when going to vote at his local polling place. If only that “democracy” part were true! – instead, it rather seems about as scrambled as those eggs.

To end this piece, I give you the short but eloquent commentary in Gazeta Wyborcza from that newspaper’s editor-in-chief, the famous Polish dissident Adam Michnik, entitled Poland Can Fear an Imperial Russia. He makes three simple points: 1) The Russians have the right to choose their own parliament, and they did; 2) Nonetheless, these elections were a step back in the building of Russian democracy, as they greatly strengthened nationalistic, populist, and even clearly imperialistic factions in that legislature at the expense of those willing to protect democratic values such as freedom of expression and pluralism. This threatens Russia itself. 3) But it certainly threatens Poland, which now has a new reason to fear developments in its neighborhood, and must therefore seek even closer integration with Western structures such as NATO and the European Union.

* Note that these percentages of votes gained pertain only to the voting for the party lists of candidates. In most cases parties gained yet more Duma deputies which won in their single-constituency elections. Jedna Rosja gained so many additional seats this way, according to Wojckechowski’s article, that it comes close to controlling a full half of the Duma. This also means that scattered liberal party delegates also managed to gain the legislature, even though their party failed to clear the 5% voting hurdle over-all, because they won in their single constituencies.

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