Russia Goes to the Polls

By Yefimova, Natasha | Russian Life, September-October 2003 | Go to article overview

Russia Goes to the Polls


Yefimova, Natasha, Russian Life


When Americans go to the polls to elect their congressmen, mayors and city council members, they usually have one thing on their minds issues. Will the candidate support a tax hike? What's his stance on abortion? Smoking in public places? The war in Iraq?

In Russia, issues are largely irrelevant. Of the five political parties expected to land seats in the State Duma in December's nationwide elections, at least two--the leading Unified Russia party and the No. 4 Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR)--have no policy agendas to speak of. And yet, according to the latest opinion polls, between them they command between one quarter and one-third of the popular vote.

What, then, makes a Russian party strong or weak? A strong parry needs a strong support base. But in Russia support often comes not from the bottom up (from dedicated voters) but from the top down: from powerful backers in politics or business.

This election season is a prime example of this top-down trend: The main players are huddled in the Kremlin, bent on exerting even greater influence on the electoral process than in the past. The short-term prize is control of the legislature which will ensure the smooth passage of new laws. Long term, there are two presidential elections to think about March 2004, when incumbent Vladimir Putin is the hands-down favorite, and 2008, which may offer opportunities for a redistribution of power at the top of the heap.

In and of themselves, these goals are hardly undemocratic. What president would not want a complacent parliament? What political group worth its salt does not jockey lot power ahead of presidential elections?

But the methods used to achieve these goals often raise concerns about Russia's balancing act between democracy and autocracy. Federal authorities interfere on a regular basis in local politics; law enforcement agencies use criminal cases as a tool in political contests; access to nationwide media coverage is heavily subject to state control.

This situation is complicated by the fact that the Kremlin is no monolith. As elections approach, fighting between various factions and clans within the administration heats up and starts seeping into the public domain. Such friction, for instance, played a crucial role in this summer's scandals surrounding the oil company Yukos and its CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

The ripple effect of these conflicts recalls a popular Russian saying: "When the masters fight, the servants' heads ache."

One question on people's minds is how much the "masters' fighting" will affect the outcome of the December elections. More importantly, how much will it shape the reforms and policy decisions that follow: Will the power struggle kick-start bold modernization or merely preserve the status-quo, nudging the country closer to stagnation?

The answer will not be apparent right away. Meanwhile, long-promised but painful structural changes--such as reforms of the natural gas monopoly and the housing sector have been put on hold until after the elections.

KEY PLAYERS

The dominating force in this year's elections is likely to be the Kremlin-backed "party of power," Unified Russia, which has been neck-and-neck in the polls with the Communists. Its predecessor, the Unity political movement, was created months before the 1999 Duma elections by Kremlin masterminds to provide Putin with a reliable legislative base. Over the ensuing four years, Unity became the core of a so-called "centrist coalition" in the Duma, merging with its one-time opponents from Fatherland-AU Russia (OVR) and a handful of smaller groups to become the Unified Russia party. For the most part, the new coalition attracted people already in power, which has led critics to call it "the party of bureaucrats."

Together, these centrists controlled some 235 of the Duma's 450 seats, enough to easily pass most Kremlin-backed bills (which required a simple majority of 226 votes). …

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