NI Online's Continuing Russia Coverage

December 12, 2007 Topic: Domestic PoliticsElectionsPolitics Region: RussiaEurasia

NI Online's Continuing Russia Coverage

Six Russia-watchers weigh in on the Russian elections, the internal state of the country, and Vladimir Putin's nomination of a successor.

Rapid Reaction: Putin's Heir?


by Nikolas K. Gvosdev


Is Dimitri Medvedev going to be the next president of Russia?

More than two years ago, in October 2005, analyst Peter Lavelle laid out the reasons that he and commentator Georgy Bovt felt Medvedev would be Putin's successor as president. Among them:

. . . Medvedev is an experienced administrator and organization man. He, probably more than anyone else, has built the "Putin political order" in terms of cadre policy. Medvedev knows the bureaucracy inside out and backwards; he knows the regional governors, high ministry officials, and, importantly, was instrumental in recasting state-oligarchic relations . . .
. . . A Medvedev presidency would most surely mean the continuation of the political and state-business status quo . . .

Plus one could still reconfigure the power structure to create a stronger prime minister to balance Medvedev (I had initially posited Medvedev as a prime minister to counter a Sergei Ivanov as president, but the same scenario could just as easily occur in reverse). This also leaves open a number of options for Putin himself to insert himself as a Russian version of Lee Kuan Yew as "senior minister" in Singapore-as a party leader of United Russia, as head of a rejuvenated Russia-Belarus' Union State, or as secretary of a Security Council reconfigured along the lines of China's military affairs commission.

We will know more after the United Russia party congress next week, and after Putin meets with the president of Belarus', Aleksandr Lukashenko.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.


Inside Track: Back in the USSR?

by Andreas Umland


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.

Oddly, Putin's new Russia is good news for its international competitors in such fields as economics, diplomacy, science and culture. The political and intellectual leaders of the world will be facing a Russian elite that does not deserve its name. Russia's "top people" will again be a gathering of brown-noses who are good at pleasing their superiors, following orders and manipulating processes, but unable or unwilling to come up and push through new ideas or original projects in a competitive environment. With every year, the Kremlin has put new limitations on free elections, non-traditional approaches and grass-roots innovation in Russia's politics, economics, mass media, civil society and cultural landscape. This is why and how the Soviet Union lost the Cold War. Like his Soviet predecessors, Putin is making his people and his country the hostages of his personal political ambition, intellectual immobility and psychological complexes.


Andreas Umland, formerly a visiting fellow at Stanford, Harvard and Oxford, is editor of the book series Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society, published by Ibidem-Verlag at Stuttgart and Hannover, and compiler of the biweekly "Russian Nationalism Bulletin" (


Why Russian Liberals Lose


by Nicolai N. Petro


Now that the results are official and, for the second time in eight years, the liberal opposition parties failed to gain even a single party-list seat in the Russian parliament, perhaps it is time for an honest discussion of why they so consistently fail to attract the support of the Russian public.

Granted, the country's booming economy does not make their argument for removing Putin an easy one-the latest IMF annual report says that, in terms of purchasing power parity, Russia's contribution to world growth in 2007 will be half as large as that of the entire European Union and much higher than Japan's.

Still, with a potential electorate as high as 40 percent, several well-known cultural and political figures in their corner and plenty of money from business elites to support their cause, it is simply astonishing how badly Putin's opponents have botched their case.

The roots of this latest electoral debacle, in which the liberal opposition lost more than half of their already small electorate, must can be traced back to the fateful decision made four years ago to forge some highly questionable political alliances.

In a misguided effort to gain publicity, moderates like Vladimir Ryzhkov, Irina Khakamada, Grigory Yavlinsky, Mikhail Kasyanov and Boris Nemtsov, embraced two highly controversial figures. The first was entrepreneur and chess champion Gary Kasparov who, as a member of the council of the U.S.-based Center for Security Policy, was known to have close ties to highly influential, as well as vociferously anti-Russian, American neoconservatives. The second is Eduard Limonov, leader of the rabidly ethno-nationalist National Bolshevik Party (NBP).