Putin Out to Fix Russian Election

Up to 110 million eligible Russian voters could head to the polls this Sunday to choose a new lower house of their legislature (though in the last election, 2003, there was just 56% turnout). Called the "Duma," it is analogous to the U.S. House of Representatives except that its members serve four-year terms.

It doesn't look, however, like it will be one of democracy's finer moments.

Russians have plenty of reasons to favor change. Nadezhda Pitulova of Transitions Online, writing for Business Week, explains that Russia today is much the same as it was in both Tsarist and Bolshevik times -- it has a tiny cadre of elite living high on the hog while a vast unwashed population languishes in amazing poverty. Old-age pensions hover around $60 per month while the minimum living wage published by the government is three times that figure. Five million are homeless, twenty-three million live below the poverty line, and the average monthly wage is only $400 -- just $2.50 per hour for a full-time job. Meanwhile, rumors surfaced that Putin may have personally squirreled away over $40 billion in personal energy assets during his tenure. Russia isn't in the top 100 nations in terms of healthcare quality as rated by the United Nations. The average lifespan of an adult male is less than sixty years.

But because of numerous new obstacles that have been created to block access to the Duma by opposition forces, it doesn't look like many of these concerns will be very vividly expressed in the new parliament.

In the 1990s, before Vladimir Putin became Russia's president, the upper house of Russia's legislature (known as the Council of the Federation) was elected by the people and consisted of the governors of Russia's version of states (the giant landmass has more than eighty of them).

Today, Putin himself appoints the governors, and hence the entire membership of the upper house (whose speaker routinely calls for Putin to serve as president for life).

Before Putin, individual candidates could run for a seat in the Duma regardless of party affiliation. Before Putin, a political party only needed to have 10,000 registered members in order to get its name on the ballot, and a party only needed to garner 5% of the vote to earn itself Duma seats; those below 5% could form coalitions in order to move up to power.

Today, individual candidates are banned from seeking Duma seats, voting coalitions have also been barred, and parties must have 50,000 members to get on the ballot and must win 7% of the vote to earn seats. A three-party coalition took fourth place in the 2003 elections; none of those parties are on the radar screen this time around.

Though daunting in and of themselves, these legal "reforms" were only the first set of obstacles Putin's regime felt it needed to place in the path of those who would seek to challenge his authority in the legislature. The extremity of breadth of the restrictions indicates that Putin isn't really as rock-solid popular as many claim him to be, and that it's crucial for him that his party, United Russia, dominates the outcome. He's indicated he may move from the presidency to a temporary stint as prime minister, enabling him to run for president in 2008 against the prime minister who would succeed him when he resigned. He cannot seek a third consecutive term under the current Constitution. To guarantee the prime ministry, his party needs to own the Duma. In a pre-recorded speech to the nation on Thursday, Putin appeared to imply that the nation could not survive voting against United Russia. He said that "we should not allow back into power the people who... want to change and muddle Russia's development plans [and] return to a time of humiliation, dependency and disintegration." He gave no further details about his post-election plans.

So, in a double-whammy, Putin then ordered United Russia not to engage in public debates with any rival party, and denied all the others access to state-owned television, radio and newspapers (which dominate the country's market share). More recently, he instituted Soviet-style price controls on staple household goods, which had seen nosebleed-inducing levels of inflation, in order to undercut any attempt to whip up a grassroots backlash.

Next, Putin ratcheted up his anti-Western rhetoric, referring to opposition parties as "jackals" and warning the the U.S. State Department was seeking to undermine the legitimacy of the elections, and used this accusation as a pretext to ban virtually all foreign polling place observers from the country. After that, Putin started cracking down on domestic observers too. On Thursday, the Moscow Times reported that the offices of an NGO that engages in vote monitoring had been raided on allegations of using pirated software (the same allegations that were used weeks before to close down the local outpost of Anna Politkovskaya's paper Novaya Gazeta) and its activities ground to a halt. Russia doesn't have a reliable system of exit polling, making it that much easier to conceal fraud, and in another jolting announcement it was revealed that Putin's youth cult "Nashi" would conduct its own exit polling, further muddying the waters. Thus freed from any type of oversight, his minions became amazingly bold in expressing their intention, should it be necessary, to stuff ballot boxes in order to guarantee that Putin's party dominated the proceedings. Putin's rhetoric became so intense that Leonid Sedov, senior researcher with pollster the Levada Centre, told Reuters that he "would describe Putin as a non-funny version of [infamous nationalist extremist Vladimir] Zhirinovsky. He borrowed a lot from Zhirinovsky in the way he operates, his anti-Western rhetoric, to say nothing of employing salty phrases. And this crudeness, this slightly mischievous behavior, also appeals to some voters." Sedov speculated that, having stolen so much of Zhirinovsky's thunder, the nationalist's party might not make it past the 7% barrier and find itself, too, excluded from the race. Similar speculation was offered about Putin's efforts to be more "communist" than the Communist Party, his leading challenger.

And finally, aggressive steps were taken to physically crush the last viable elements of the opposition parties. During the campaign cycle, Putin's police seized millions of campaign brochures, already approved by elections officials, before a leading rival party could distribute them, and forced another party to take down hundreds of its campaign billboards. At campaign rallies the weekend before the vote Russia's two most famous opposition party leaders, Boris Nemtsov and Garry Kasparov, were both arrested, as were a host of their followers, many preemptively (Kasparov's book, due to be published in Russia during the election cycle, was suddenly squelched). Nemtsov was quickly released, but Kasparov was sentenced to five days in prison (Kasparov had been more quickly released after his first arrest months earlier, making it seem the Kremlin was probing the West to see how much it could get away with). It was as if George Bush had arrested John Kerry and John Edwards at a rally sponsored by Moveon.org right before he lost control of both houses of Congress, and world leaders condemned Putin's actions with marked and appropriate severity in their language (even Bush let Putin have it, he who once infamously looked into the dictator's eyes, saw his soul and found it "trustworthy"). That same week in Russia's war-torn Chechnya region, two opposition political figures (including one candidate for the Duma) were assassinated. Police even threatened a local party organization with arrests because of jokes they were telling about Putin, and there were rumors of shakedown efforts by Putin's party to coerce campaign contributions in the manner of la cosa nostra.

With all these obstacles in place, some speculated on the possibility that no party other than Putin's would be allowed to pass the 7% barrier, leaving Russia with a formalized one-party state similar to China's. Leading opposition party leader Grigori Yavlinksy told the BBC: "When you have no possibility for independent financing, no access to independent media, no access to independent justice, then by European standards there's no possibility to become an opposition." Party leader Nikita Belykh accused the Kremlin of adopting "totalitarian methods" and major opposition figure Vladimir Ryzhkov echoed him, saying the election would be "the first absolutely non-free election since the end of the Soviet Union" and adding: "It's becoming more and more like Soviet political system, with one centre of power: [the] Kremlin and Kremlin administration, which controls everything - parliament, courts, the party system, media, regional authorities and local authorities. [It's] a pyramid of power headed by one man."

The Christian Science Monitor called them "Potemkin elections." Slate said that Putin arrests his rivals simply "because he can" and that the similarities between today and Soviet times were "more than merely visual." An editorial in the Financial Times bluntly called the proceedings a "travesty" and observed: "Given such a foregone conclusion, it is hard to understand why the Russian authorities are fighting such a foul election campaign. Yet in the system of 'managed democracy' espoused by Mr Putin, nothing can be left to chance." Indeed, even without these measures the parliament was already acting like a rubber stamp for Putin's initiatives, so it was difficult to understand why Putin felt he needed so many draconian measures, which would surely alienate much of his Western support. Difficult, until you remember that these elections were key to Putin's plan to remain in power after his second term ends next year.

Ultimately, seven parties ended up making it valiantly onto the ballot despite the long odds, but only two other than Putin's are currently at 7% or greater support in opinion polls -- those being the Communists and Zhirinovsky. United Russia is currently polling at 60% or better (it won less than 40% of the party seats in the Duma four years ago); it only needs to improve on that marginally, by hook or crook, to seize control of virtually the entire body. It seems that Russian law requires that if only one party wins more than the requisite 7% then the highest runner-up will be awarded an automatic 7% share as the token opposition, but there are actually two parties in the race that are fanatically loyal to Putin, United Russia and Fair Russia (led by the Council Speaker). Fair Russia is currently polling around 5%, so it only needs a bit of goosing at the expense of the communists and the nationalists in order to supplant them and hand the entire body to the Putin cadre. Both of the two opposition groups to Putin that embrace Western democratic values, Grigori Yavlinsky's Yabloko and Boris Nemtsov's Union of Right Forces, are polling below 1% -- and despite that Putin is still so afraid of them that he found it necessary to arrest them and crush their relatively feeble public demonstrations.

Kim Zigfeld is a New York City-based writer who blogs at the Pajamas Media Network blog Publius Pundit and publishes her own Russia specialty blog, La Russophobe. She also writes for Russia! magazine and is researching a book on the rise of dictatorship in Putin's Russia.