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Understanding Russia's Elections

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Message Nicolai Petro
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The following two items first appeared, respectively, on Russia Profile's Weekly Experts Panel, and on The National Interest Online.


United Russia not only ran its campaign as a referendum on Putin's policies, but it specifically introduced and popularized the concept of the "Putin Plan."  This is an important point that is often overlooked. Seeking a broad mandate for Putin's Plan only makes sense if United Russia intends to strengthen the political weight of the parliament.  By pledging to continue the multi-year budgetary and policy commitments that have been made under Putin, United Russia has committed itself to fulfilling those obligations regardless of who becomes the next president of Russia. It cannot be confident in its ability to do unless it significantly increases the Duma's role in the shaping of national policy.

Paradoxically, the strong public support shown for the Putin Plan makes it easier for Putin to remain on the sideline.  Had the parliament been more evenly divided, he might have been needed to shore up support for critical votes, but now that will no longer be necessary.  Nor do I believe, contrary to the conventional wisdom, that Putin has any interest in playing a strong role behind the scenes, which would clearly weaken his successor.  I believe him when he says that he is most interested in promoting institutional stability in Russia. A weak president, or one who appeared so, would undermine all that he has worked for.

Having obtained such a convincing win on a platform with a very specific history, and a very specific agenda for the future, United Russia is now going to nominate as its presidential candidate someone who will make the same pledge to voters -- to stick to Putin's Plan for national recovery.  This sort of "double investiture," where the populace gets to ratify it policy preferences twice, once for the executive and once for legislature, is a familiar feature of modern French politics. It is useful to recall that, as recently as the 1986 general elections in France, the same party dominated both, and there was much apocalyptic speculation about what a "cohabitation" of opposing parties might lead to for France.  It turns out: "pas grand chose."

Over time, I would expect to see Russia's political system evolve in the same direction that the institutions of the Fifth Republic have evolved since the presidency of François Mitterrand. This should hardly be surprising, since the French constitution served as the primary inspiration for the current Russian one.

>>>>>     Inside Track: Why Russian Liberals Lose     <<<<<

Now that the results are official and, for the second time in eight years, the liberal opposition parties failed to gain even a single party-list seat in the Russian parliament, perhaps it is time for an honest discussion of why they so consistently fail to attract the support of the Russian public.

Granted, the country’s booming economy does not make their argument for removing Putin an easy one—the latest IMF annual report says that, in terms of purchasing power parity, Russia’s contribution to world growth in 2007 will be half as large as that of the entire European Union and much higher than Japan’s.

Still, with a potential electorate as high as 40 percent, several well-known cultural and political figures in their corner and plenty of money from business elites to support their cause, it is simply astonishing how badly Putin’s opponents have botched their case.

The roots of this latest electoral debacle, in which the liberal opposition lost more than half of their already small electorate, must can be traced back to the fateful decision made four years ago to forge some highly questionable political alliances.

In a misguided effort to gain publicity, moderates like Vladimir Ryzhkov, Irina Khakamada, Grigory Yavlinsky, Mikhail Kasyanov and Boris Nemtsov, embraced two highly controversial figures. The first was entrepreneur and chess champion Gary Kasparov who, as a member of the council of the U.S.-based Center for Security Policy, was known to have close ties to highly influential, as well as vociferously anti-Russian, American neoconservatives. The second is Eduard Limonov, leader of the rabidly ethno-nationalist National Bolshevik Party (NBP).

Limonov, who has called for the use of “Serbian tactics” to regain regions of the former Soviet Union with large Russian populations, is much more than an “accidental ally” of these liberals, as reported in the American press. He approached the group that spawned “Another Russia”, the “Committee 2008: Free Choice”, soon after it was established in March 2004, to recommend the expertise of his “fighters”—expertise like brandishing a fake grenade to occupy St. Peter’s Church in Riga, Latvia, for which several NBP members served jail time. Limonov himself was convicted of illegal arms purchases in April 2001 and served two years in jail, before being released on parole.

So bad is Limonov that even the pugnacious leader of the far left “Working Russia”, Viktor Anpilov, himself no stranger to confrontations with authorities, eventually could no longer stomach being part of “Another Russia.” Its political agenda, he said, had become “basically to get out into the streets and brawl.”

In American politics this sort of coalition would be as unthinkable as Al Gore and Bill Richardson forging an alliance with American chess legend Bobby Fischer and ex-Klansman David Duke. In the bizarre world of Russian opposition politics, however, Limonov, who was once labeled an extremist in the Wall Street Journal, has become a steadfast comrade-in-arms of Kasparov, now a contributing editor to the same newspaper!

While several former allies, including Yavlinksy and Kasyanov, have parted company with Another Russia, others like Kasparov, Ryzhkov and Nemtsov continue to justify this alliance as necessary to circumvent the Kremlin’s control of the media.

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Nicolai N. Petro is professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. He has served as special assistant for policy in the U.S. State Department and as civic affairs advisor to the mayor of the Russian city of Novgorod the Great. His books include: The Rebirth of Russian Democracy (Harvard,1995), Russian Foreign Policy (Longman, 1997), and (more...)

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