Russia Stamps Out Political Opposition

The White House gave Russia carte blanche to crack down on the remnants of democracy. Medvedev is getting the job done right.

Russia has emasculated the country’s center-right. Steps have been taken to split the liberal vote in anticipation of the Duma elections in December. “Right Cause,” a Kremlin-supported quasi-opposition founded in 2008 under the aegis of Anatoly Chubais, the architect of Russia’s controversial privatization, elected an oligarch as their new party leader. Mikhail Prokhorov, Russia’s third-richest person (worth $18 billion, according to Forbes), the owner of the NBA’s New Jersey Nets, a playboy and allegedly Russia’s most eligible bachelor, became the party’s new boss.

Prokhorov made headlines when, in a brilliant move, he got out of the metals business on the eve of the 2009 economic recession. His name was in lights once again when the French police briefly detained him for bringing a planeload of “party girls” from Moscow to the fancy ski resort of Courchevel. Today, he is launching the Ё-car, the first Russian hybrid vehicle aimed at the mass market. If successful, it may make Prokhorov even richer; if not, it would be an expensive flop.

As much as Prokhorov and “Right Cause” want to be known as pro-business and pro-reform, he has already ruled out identifying his party as a part of the political opposition. No wonder. Anyone who has to do business with the government all the time—and with a government headed by Vladimir Putin—certainly doesn’t want to get on the wrong side of the establishment.

In the end, then, he and his party support the status quo. In fact, Arkady Dvorkovich, President Medvedev’s economic advisor, tweeted recently that Prokhorov’s views were “close to [his].” Any real opposition gets shafted when rulers are propping up friendly political forces. And now there is the creation of the “Popular Front” to support Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s return to presidency and to boost the ruling party, United Russia. Needless to say, it is “business as usual.”

Anyone who doubts this should look at the fate of PARNAS, the Party of People’s Freedom. The Russian Justice Ministry just banned PARNAS, a center-right opposition party, from participating in the elections. Led by well-known democratic politicians, including former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, former Duma Vice Chairman Vladimir Ryzhkov and former Deputy Minister of Energy Vladimir Milov, it is neither violent nor extremist.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released a statement on the State Department’s website that "it is hard to understand how this decision…is consistent with Russia's international commitments and recent statements by Russia's own leaders."

Why is the secretary surprised with this sort of behavior after her administration gave Russia carte blanche to crack down on the remnants of democracy, and what is she planning to do about it?

The decision to deny registration is illegal on its face. Russian authorities said that the party ranks contained some “dead souls” (some names necessary for registration could not be confirmed), yet these numbered no more than 70 out of more than 46,000 people who signed the registration petition. Furthermore, authorities claimed that the party did not allow for a “rotation of leadership,” required under election law, which, PARNAS says, is patently false.

PARNAS is one of nine opposition parties that the Central Electoral Commission and the Justice Ministry have denied access to Russia’s electorate in the last four years. And opposition politicians also lack access to national TV channels. The European Court of Human Rights has cited Russia for its handling of opposition movements, including the forced dissolution of another opposition party in 2007.

While President Medvedev and the tame “Right Cause” are calling for greater democracy, the government denies millions of Russians the right to vote.

As SAIS scholar Donald Jensen and I noted recently, the Obama administration bet on the wrong horse when it engaged Medvedev as the lead contact in its “reset” with Russia. This was a failure to realistically assess who are we dealing with, and who is making key decisions. The United States should take note, as the administration’s “reset” policy demonstrates its futility once again.

Image from www.kremlin.ru