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Putin gets his parliament
By Jeremy Bransten in Prague and
Sophie Lambroschini in Moscow

The West's favorite candidates in Sunday's Russian Duma elections ended up the biggest losers. The well-known, telegenic and liberal-minded economist Grigorii Yavlinskii - a fixture of Western news programs - led his Yabloko Party to electoral failure. So did Anatolii Chubais, father of Russia's privatization in the 1990s and head of the right-of-center Union of Rightist Forces (SPS).

By contrast, a new leftist, nationalist bloc calling itself "Motherland" made it into parliament for the first time. The traditional purveyor of ultra-nationalist rhetoric, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), also did well. The communists, also restyled as Great Russia nationalists, may have disappointed their electorate with a poorer-than-anticipated result, but nevertheless came in second.

Keeping in mind that segments of Unified Russia, the Kremlin-organized party that won a decisive victory, also espouse strong nationalist tendencies, it is clear that the country's voters have sent a strong message that can be summed up as a rejection of the Western-style, liberal economic and social policies initiated in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

How can this pendulum swing be explained? Vladimir Pribylovskii, head of the Moscow-based Panorama political think-tank, says the defeat of Yabloko and SPS is not surprising. At best, Pribylovskii says, the total electorate in Russia for right-of-center liberal parties totals not more than 10-15 percent. And it is an electorate that is split - to put it bluntly - between the millionaires who initiated privatization and the enlightened urban intellectuals that were largely impoverished by it. The two groups were unable to unite - with the millionaires voting for Chubais' Union of Rightist Forces and the intellectuals voting for Yavlinskii's Yabloko Party.

"The two electorates don't go together. The impoverished intelligentsia, which lost money thanks to the reforms initiated by [Yegor] Gaidar, Chubais, and [Viktor] Chernomyrdin, is not going to vote for people driving around in their Mercedes who profited from and initiated these reforms," Pribylovskii said.

The reason few Russians can support openly reformist right-of-center parties is simple: most people, especially outside of the major cities, do not feel they have profited from the past decade of reforms initiated by such parties. Many more Russians feel left behind and poor, making them responsive to nationalist, leftist appeals. With the Kremlin this year not supporting any right-of-center faction, Yabloko and SPS began and ended their campaigns fractured and isolated with a largely unpopular message - leading to their poor results.

By contrast, the Kremlin-inspired Unified Russia party, as its name implies, managed to appeal to a large swath of the Russian electorate. By remaining fuzzy on the issues, refusing to engage in televised debates, and emphasizing its links to President Vladimir Putin, the party became all things to all people. It drew nationalists attracted by Putin's patriotic rhetoric as well as industrialists seeking to be under the Kremlin's protective umbrella. Unified Russia broadened the political center and as a result took potential votes away from both the right and left wings of the spectrum. What was left was divided up by a weakened Communist Party, Vladimir Zhirinovskii's Liberal Democratic Party and the new Motherland bloc.

What, then, is likely to be the effect of this new Duma, and does it mean the significant influence of liberal economists on Kremlin policy is now over? Paradoxically, says longtime Russia analyst Stephan de Spiegeleire, of the Rand Europe think-tank in The Hague, the influence of men like Yavlinksii and Chubais is not likely to diminish at the Kremlin - and the new, more uniform Duma may be just the vehicle they need to see their policies put into practice.

As it has demonstrated over the years, Zhirinovskii's LDPR, while invoking extremist rhetoric, is actually a pliant partner to the Kremlin's wishes on the Duma floor. The new Motherland bloc is expected to be the same, which means that Putin is likely to have an unassailable two-thirds constitutional majority in the new parliament.

Russia's voters, in effect, have created a rubber-stamp legislature whose weight is likely to be greatly diminished in the months and years to come. If Putin wins re-election in presidential polls next March, as seems more than likely, he will then be free to undertake any reforms he wishes. And those reforms, as de Spiegeleire points out, are likely to involve painful restructuring of the public utilities sector, the bloated state bureaucracy, and other areas that have long been the target of the liberal economists.

"I think that's the big irony of these elections. I think right now, the average voter probably thinks: 'Yeah, this reflects what I wanted to see in the Duma.' But more than anything else, he has basically voted the Russian Duma into irrelevance. And if that's the case, then indeed he will feel slighted if indeed these more radical reforms are passed, say somewhere by the middle of next year. But there will be very little that he can do about it," de Spiegeleire said.

Vladimir Pribylovskii is even more blunt: "If they get these 300 seats, and it seems they will, they will institute a third term for Putin [through constitutional amendments]. They are just going to approve everything Putin wants. If he proposes uniting Russia with China, he will have 300 votes. If he wants to make Russia a state of the United States, he will also get 300 votes."

Since the locus of power will have shifted away from the Duma, de Spiegeleire says, the architects of the planned reforms may not be needed in the Duma - they will be able to lobby directly in the Kremlin. "A lot of the agenda that will be realized, as I said, as I surmise, after the presidential elections, I think will still very much have an ideological debt to Yabloko and the Union of Right[ist] Forces," he said. "And I think behind the scenes they will continue to be very influential."

All analysts say that the process is not likely to get under way, however, until after Putin wins a second term. Expect no bold reforms or right-wing rhetoric from the Kremlin until after March.

Whopping victory
"It will be a Duma of civil servants, nationalists and communists." That was the prediction made by democratic politician Boris Nemtsov just two days before Russia's parliamentary vote. And an amazingly accurate one - with 90 percent of the ballots counted, Russian Central Election Commission chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov announced that Unified Russia was leading with nearly 40 percent of the vote.

"Unified Russia, 38.8 percent, first place. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation, second place, 12.7 percent. The Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, 11.8 percent in third place. And the Motherland bloc, 9 percent," he said.

The results mean that the Communists will continue their role as parliamentary oppositionists with just half the numbers they enjoyed in the previous Duma. It may be weeks before the final composition of the parliament becomes clear. But preliminary calculations indicate that Unified Russia, together with its allies, is close to achieving the two-thirds majority it would need to initiate key changes to the Russian constitution - such, as mentioned, extending Putin's presidential term.

Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst with the Carnegie Endowment Fund, described Russia's post-election political landscape in bleak terms. "There was already no system of checks or balances to weigh against the president. Now, with the election of the new Duma, there is even less," he said. "I think the root of the evil is the weakness of civil society in Russia."

The SPS's Irina Khakamada, one of the very few women to reach the upper echelons of Russia's political scene, lost in her single-mandate district. Expressing her regret, she said the democrats themselves were to blame for their sweeping loss. "It's our fault; it's the democrats' fault that we lost," she said. "We were responsible for ensuring that we won no matter what. But in this we failed."

Yabloko head Yavlinskii appeared more philosophical about the outcome, arguing the time for liberal politics has yet to come in Russia. "When people don't get paid, they vote for the [Communists]. When they don't have any water, they vote for the LDPR. For people to vote for Yabloko, they have to have electricity and water, you understand." he said.

Many democrats had critical words for surprise winner Motherland, likening party leaders Sergei Glazev and Dmitrii Rogozin to "national socialists" and warning about the danger of "fascism" encroaching on Russia. Motherland ran on a populist mix of nationalism and leftist economics. It has promised the redistribution of Russia's natural resource wealth monopolized by the country's super-rich - a pledge that may leave investors wary that the Duma may attempt to reverse the privatizations of the mid-1990s. Motherland puts a priority on the defense of Russians abroad, distrusts the West, and calls for an alliance with China. The bloc's website claims Motherland has the support of "God, the people and the Russian president".

Glazev dismissed the bloc's ties to national socialism - a reference by the democrats to the Nazism that once ruled Germany - and pointed as proof to the World War II veterans supporting Motherland. Glazev outlined Motherland's platform in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Russian Service last week: "We want the authorities to finally work in the interests of national interests - that the Duma defends the interests of the country and not those of the oligarchs, private corporations and shadow lobbyists. Until now, the Duma voted like it was paid to, while we need the Duma to vote in the country's interests." Glazev began his political career as a cabinet member in one of Boris Yeltsin's first governments but walked out in protest against the storming of parliament in October 1993. He later drifted to the communists and is seen by many as an alternative to Zyuganov.

Rogozin made his political debut defending the rights of ethnic Russians abroad, and later served as deputy head of the Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee and as a special Kremlin negotiator on Kaliningrad. He is said to have the Kremlin's ear on international matters and has gained public attention for his tough pro-Russian stance.

Roughly half of Russia's 109 million eligible voters participated in the elections, suggesting widespread apathy among voters following a bland campaign season whose outcome was considered by many a foregone conclusion. But what affected the decisions of those Russians who did vote? Leonid Sedov, a sociologist with the VTsIOM-A opinion agency, said social concerns brought votes to Unified Russia, which ran on broad promises of stability and higher living standards. And the protest vote, which in the past two elections went to the communists, this time was seized by other parties.

"Why did the protest votes tip in that direction? It seems to me that social motivations appear to give way here to patriotic 'Great Russia'-style ideas. As a result of that, it's the LDPR and Motherland who win votes," Sedov said.

Motherland, which analysts believe was created by the Kremlin in order to siphon off votes from the Communists, is largely expected to melt into the pro-Kremlin majority along with the LDPR. It remains unclear what the Kremlin will do with a two-thirds constitutional majority. Russian Social Affairs Minister Aleksandr Pochinok said the election has handed Putin the capacity for strong action.

"The situation is that, indeed, the president and the majority of the Duma have the possibility of adopting laws, even constitutional ones. Where will this take us? We'll have to see. As a social affairs person, I hope there will be social reforms. The possibility for that is there. So from this point of view, I am optimistic," Pochinok said.

Pochinok dismissed concerns that Motherland's rise meant a return to old-style isolationist nationalism, noting that LDPR, even at its strongest in the early 1990s, did little to affect Kremlin policy. But other observers are not convinced. Independent Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov, speaking on television, wondered how Putin would make good on his promises to modernize Russia when "the wind is blowing in the opposite direction".

Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20036.

(Copyright 2003 RFE/RL Inc.)

Dec 10, 2003



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