International Papers

Putin’s Party Takes Control

Does United Russia’s victory presage the death of democracy?

A police state is in the making in Russia—or, at least, that’s many commentators’ response to the sweeping win for the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party in Sunday’s parliamentary elections. Britain’s Daily Telegraph said that in taking control of the Duma, President Vladimir Putin is “removing the last effective bastion of opposition to his rule and paving the way for him to assume Tsar-like power.” Speculation abounded that Putin will use his sway in parliament to scrap the constitution’s presidential term-limit law. (If, as expected, Putin wins the March 2004 presidential election, under current law, he would have to step down in 2008.)

Papers reported that Sunday marked the strongest showing in legislative elections for any single political party since the fall of the Soviet Union. The Financial Times noted, “This is the first time in post-Soviet history that the pro-Kremlin party—rather than an opposition to it—has won the legislative power in the country.”

With about 98 percent of votes counted, United Russia took just over 37 percent. Britain’s Guardian said: “The overall result was never in question. The scale of Mr. Putin’s victory was interesting only because it determined how unchecked his power would be in the coming years.” The Communist Party took 12.7 percent of the vote, and a veteran party leader told Britain’s Telegraph, “The election campaign has been an evil farce. Formally the parliament will be elected but in fact it will be appointed by the presidential administration.”

An editorial in the Moscow Times called United Russia a “non-party,” saying it consists merely of people with “a slavish devotion” to Putin. The Telegraph also painted United Russia as an instrument of Putin, calling it “a party with no ideology and only the barest outline of a political platform.” Most papers noted that United Russia refused to participate in televised debates.

Putin’s backers, the Scotsman reported, say “he is more likely to launch fresh economic reforms designed to erode Russia’s massive bureaucracy. That would go hand in hand with his attempts to forge a strong state by wresting control of natural resources from the super-rich oligarchs.” Most notable was the arrest in October of the oil magnate Mikhail Khordorkovsky on fraud and tax evasion charges. (For more on Khodorkovsky’s arrest and its aftermath, see this “Foreigners” column from November.) Britain’s Independent noted, “What sort of policies Mr. Putin now pursues will depend on which parties he and United Russia are able to co-opt as allies in the Duma.” One analyst told the Scotsman, “The president’s total dominance combined with a pseudo multi-party Duma is a sure guarantee that the current course being charted toward a police state, controlled by an authoritarian head of state and the law enforcement agencies, will prevail for 10 to 12 years.”

The Telegraph said this trend has been underway for some time, beginning in 1993 when President Boris Yeltsin grabbed many of parliament’s traditional powers for himself. “Since Mr. Putin came to office in 2000 the process has been accelerated,” the paper said. “Opposition-controlled media have been neutered and tycoons unwilling to toe the Kremlin line exiled or jailed. United Russia, invented by Mr. Putin as a vehicle for his policies in the State Duma, has risen in importance.”

Many papers saw significance in the showing of two nationalist parties, Homeland and the “misleadingly named”—as most papers put it—Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. Together they took over 20 percent of the vote, making them the main opposition. Britain’s Independent observed, “Any ambitions Mr. Putin might have had for introducing faster economic and judicial reforms could be heavily circumscribed by the unexpectedly strong showing of the nationalist right.” The Age of Melbourne said the nationalist parties appear to have profited from fear stoked by the recent bombing in Chechnya. The paper quoted the garish LDPR leader, Vladmir Zhirinovsky: “If you don’t want bombs on trains, vote for me. I will be tougher than Putin.” The paper said that given the poor showing for liberal parties on Sunday, it is unlikely that faction could be much of a challenge to Putin in 2004. “Rather, the challenge to him is likely to come from the nationalists, who will cast the former secret policeman into the role of defender of democracy.” Still, the paper noted that Zhirinovsky has generally backed whoever has occupied the Kremlin.

Britain’s Independent, which reported that turnout Sunday was about 54 percent of Russia’s 110 million eligible voters—down from 62 percent in the 1999 Duma election—said that the poll marked the first time Russians living abroad were encouraged to vote. In the end, about 5 percent of all voters came out to cast their vote for the last choice on the ballot: “Against all.”