Back in the USSR?

The central role of Vladimir Putin in shaping Russian politics now seems assured for years to come. But what are the implications of this new reality?

The outcome of Russia's fifth post-Soviet parliamentary elections was, seemingly, a triple victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin:

First, "United Russia", whose only listed candidate on the ballot was Putin himself, won the elections with an impressive 64.1 percent of the turnout. This translates into 315 of the 450 seats in the Duma for the Kremlin-created party. Such a large majority will allow its faction to adopt unilaterally not only ordinary laws, but also constitutional laws that can change the structure of the Russian state. This, apparently, was exactly what the Kremlin wanted.

Second, while the results of "United Russia's" three competitors that also made it into parliament were miserable in comparison to United Russia's, the Kremlin was spared the embarrassment of having only one other party crossing the 7 percent barrier. This allows Putin and his spin-doctors to claim that democracy is alive and well in Russia, since a four-party parliament would seem to correspond to European standards. Formally, the number of factions in the new Duma will be the same as in the old.

Third, the overall percentage of votes cast for parties that did not make it into parliament was, surprisingly, much lower this year than in the elections of 2003. This was in spite of the fact that the barrier in 2003 had been 5 percent, 2 percent lower than that of the latest elections. Apparently, only around 10 percent of the overall vote was wasted on minor parties on Sunday. Four years ago, this number was closer to 30 percent. This has allowed Putin to already claim, with some justification, that the legitimacy of the fifth post-Soviet State Duma is higher than that of the fourth. Finally, one could add that, except for the national republics (especially in the North Caucasus), apparently, direct violations of the law on election day were minor. Even Western observers evaluated the voting process on December 2 as orderly and adequate.

However-as everybody who watches Russian TV will know-the election campaign was by no means fair. The coverage of Putin's and "United Russia's" activities in the daily news and political shows was overwhelming and, with every passing week, degraded more and more into a bizarre personality cult. Reporting on opposition parties, especially on the so-called Union of Right-Wing Forces (SPS), a pro-Western liberal democratic party, was one-sided, in the opposite direction. It included coverage of protests apparently staged by former SPS activists who had, allegedly, not been paid by their party for campaign work. Journalists from the state-owned TV channels were "at the right place at the right time" and reported extensively (though without much detail) on SPS's apparent betrayal of its own supporters. It seems that the obvious obstacles that the Kremlin created for its opponents were accepted by the majority of Russian voters in view of the seeming moral deficiencies of the "democrats."

While this is all good news for the Kremlin, the election campaign and results are bad news for Russia. They continue Russia's drift back toward a monistic system where Putin's "vertical of power" slowly soaks through all major elements of society-party and non-party politics, federal and local administration, mass and elite media, high and low culture, and so on. The new State Duma is merely the most obvious example of this pathology: It is superfluous. In as far as "United Russia's" success is almost entirely due to Putin's active support for it, the party's faction will be dependent on the President. With 315 seats of the Duma belonging to "United Russia", the other parties have no chance of influencing legislation, even if they unite. With such an obvious domination of the legislature by the executive, the question arises of why Russia will be spending a lot of money on this rubber stamp parliament if neither "United Russia's" nor the other faction's deputies will have much say in the formulation and adoption of laws. What is the purpose of this state organ-the function of which will, apparently, be closer to that of Hyde Park's Corner than that of a real legislature?

The Russian state increasingly resembles the late Soviet one and is again becoming an organization of mediocrities. Once more, Russia's traditionally numerous yes-men-and not its plentiful talents-will be making careers in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The above-mentioned Russian TV journalism is an example: Few Russians would deny that the reporters of the original, private NTV channel like Leonid Parfenov, Evgenii Kisselov, Svetlana Sorokina, Andrei Norkin, Viktor Shenderovich, Savik Shuster and others are talented TV journalists. However, none of them works as a political reporter or commentator for a major TV channel anymore. Instead, these professionals now work for minor media stations, deal with non-political themes or have, as Savik Shuster did, left the country for good. This, one fears, will happen to creative people in other fields of society that touch upon politics too: Business people, social scientists, civic activists or avant-garde artists not willing to follow the Kremlin line will be marginalized, or driven into "inner" or even real emigration.

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