Post-Elections Russia: Promising Stability or Worrying Uniformity? Rouben Azizian Comments on the Outcome of the Recent Parliamentary and Presidential Elections in Russia

Article excerpt

One could argue that events in Russia are attracting less attention in New Zealand these days because of Russia's diminished political and economic weight in global and regional affairs. At the same time, change in reality and change in perception are rarely synchronous. Many New Zealanders have not fully overcome the image of the Soviet Union, which they often transfer to Russia. This is not illogical despite the enormous change in Russia's political scene in the last decade because Russia has inherited certain traditions, styles and symbolisms of the Soviet epoch. In addition to that, commentators in the West are alarmed by what they see as a gradual return to authoritarianism in Russia, the proliferation of former KGB cadres in the high echelons of power, and the resumption of an imperialist agenda with regard to neighboring states. Even the Soviet anthem is back, albeit with different lyrics. How long before they are the same too?

If the alarmists are right, the Russia factor will soon reappear on the international agenda as a source of external instability (growing confrontation with the United States and/or China) or as a driver of serious domestic unrest, either in ethnic or civic form or even both. If they prove to be wrong, Russia is likely significantly to enhance its economic performance and political profile and achieve impressive results in integrating with the world economy and regional community of the Asia-Pacific countries. Russia, for example, has made considerable progress in negotiating its entry into the World Trade Organisation. Both scenarios are likely to have a serious impact on regional affairs and have to be closely watched by New Zealand and other countries. Russia's recent parliamentary and presidential elections are therefore important for an understanding of Russia's political undercurrents.

Election results

As a result of parliamentary elections held on 7 December 2003, out of 450 seats in the State Duma (lower legislative chamber), United Russia won 305 seats (67.78 per cent), the Communist Party of Russia, 52 seats (11.56 per cent), the Motherland Party, 38 seats (8.44 per cent), the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, 36 seats (8 per cent), and others, 17 seats (3.78 per cent). (1) United Russia's showing was the strongest for any political party since the Soviet Union's collapse. If United Russia's striking margin of victory was the top story of the day, the strength of two nationalist parties, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and Motherland, was the second. The weakness of the liberals--Yabloko (four seats) and the Union of Rightist Forces (three seats)--was the third.

In the presidential elections held on 4 March 2004 incumbent President Vladimir Putin won 71.31 per cent of the vote, compared with 13.74 per cent for second place finisher Communist Party candidate Nikolai Kharitonov. State Duma Deputy Sergei Glazev (Motherland) polled 4.1 per cent; former Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) co-chairwoman Irina Khakamada, 3.84 per cent; 'against all', 3.45 per cent; Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) candidate Oleg Malyshkin, 2.02 per cent; and Federation Council chairman Sergei Mironov, 0.75 per cent. (2)

The impressive re-election of President Putin and the triumph of United Russia in the parliamentary elections came as little surprise. It is true that the electronic media were openly favoring Putin and United Russia. It was obvious that the local authorities tried their best to 'impress' Putin by mobilising the electorate to take part in the presidential elections (the only concern there was if the turnout would reach the required 50 per cent of registered voters) and promoting United Russia. If this did not happen the numbers would have been different but the overall result would not have changed dramatically.

Three reasons

There seem to be three main reasons for Vladimir Putin's spectacular electoral success, and they also explain the impressive performance of United Russia: economic growth after a decade of decline, Putin's contrast with his predecessor and the weakness of opposition. …