29 октября 2003

Putin looks to Duma to tighten his grip. Russia´s parliamentary elections

The International Herald Tribune

The political and financial furor in Russia sparked by the arrest over the weekend of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, chairman of Yukos Oil, vividly highlights the stakes in Russia´s forthcoming parliamentary elections. The future direction of Russia´s still-fragile democracy is in balance in the December polls, which will be much more than a routine exercise in Russia´s peculiar brand of managed democracy.

A resounding victory for parties aligned with the Kremlin would allow President Vladimir Putin to further tighten his authoritarian grip on Russia and expand the already vast powers of the presidency, possibly beyond a second term. The grim alternative is stagnation and upheaval, as Russia´s politicians position themselves for the post-Putin era, and its businessmen scramble to protect their assets. Either way, the stability brought about by Putin will fray at the edges.

Despite Putin´s contentions to the contrary, the arrest of Khodorkovsky is undoubtedly politically motivated and marks a significant deterioration in the political environment in Russia. In many ways, it is the natural progression of Putin´s successful efforts to tighten his control over any form of political debate.

During his first four years in office, Putin succeeded in downgrading the Duma, the lower house of Parliament, to little more than a discussion club with benefits - a situation that he hopes to prolong after the December elections. Early in his presidency, Putin established his dominance over the Duma by helping so-called centrist parties (which in reality are exercises in cynical pro-Kremlin political pragmatism) win seats on the back of his personal popularity. Consequently, in sharp contrast to the brinkmanship and gridlock that characterized the assembly during the Yeltsin era, the Duma acquiesced to the Putin government´s program of tax, land, pension, administrative, judicial and other reforms.

The dark side of his domination of the Duma has been Putin´s success in expanding the powers of his office, through centralizing the organs of government, reducing freedom of expression and bringing in legions of former law-enforcement colleagues to fill important posts in all areas of the government. The Yukos scandal is another manifestation of Putin´s fixation on expanding the power of the presidency in both the political and economic arenas.

A key undercurrent of the looming elections, thus far largely ignored, is whether Putin will be able to convince the newly elected Duma deputies to amend the constitution to extend the president´s term in office beyond four years, and/or allow the president to remain in office for more than two terms.

Putin will almost inevitably win a second term in presidential elections scheduled for March 2004, and has publicly denied an interest in staying on beyond a second term. But he appears to have grown to like power and is unlikely to surrender the presidency without at least trying to change the rules of the game, which would require the approval of two-thirds of the Duma. Even if he wanted to walk away from the Kremlin after his second term, Putin´s vast entourage - led by the siloviki, the favored Kremlin faction comprised of former KGB and law-enforcement officials - would probably pressure him to remain in power to give them more time to convert political influence into personal wealth.

In addition to determining whether Putin would succeed in a bid to extend his stay in the Kremlin, the Duma elections are effectively a referendum on Putin´s programs and policies. An electoral result in favor of pro-Kremlin parties would amount to a mandate for Putin to continue to tighten his grip on the levers of power, while giving him the tools to do so.

On the other hand, a poor performance by United Russia, the Kremlin´s banner-carrier, would represent a black eye for Putin and underscore the limitations of his ability to parlay his personal popularity - his personal approval rating stands at more than 70 percent - into electoral success for his chosen party standard.

If strong lobbyist factions - primarily those supported by some of Russia´s oligarchs - carve out a voice for themselves, the Kremlin will have a much more difficult time managing the Duma. A strong showing by the liberal Yabloko faction (which has received financial support from Khodorkovsky) could interfere with the Kremlin´s plans.

As much as 40 percent of the new Duma, including some candidates belonging to major parties, such as the Communists and United Russia, could effectively be lobbyists for a range of financial and industrial groups. (Ironically, the Kremlin´s efforts against Khodorkovsky and Yabloko may have the unintended effect of bolstering the party´s fortunes, by increasing its support among the so-called protest electorate.)

As the Kremlin pulls out all the stops to try to get the results it desires in the Duma elections, it is displaying the authoritarianism that will increasingly characterize the Russian political environment if Putin gets his way. The Kremlin has not hesitated to use so-called administrative resources for electoral ends, in violation of laws prohibiting the involvement of the executive branch in parliamentary elections. The electoral watchdog, a Putin loyalist, has greeted these violations with a resounding silence.

In a maneuver with chilling Soviet-era overtones, the Kremlin has broadcast debates between Duma candidates on state television, but only after the discussions had been carefully edited to remove criticism of the president, his economic policy, the conduct of the current Duma campaign and other sensitive issues.

The Kremlin is also trying to shape the Duma in its own image through underhanded attempts to derail the opposition. It has quietly supported the creation of offshoot parties - such as the recently founded Motherland Party, headed by Sergey Glaziyev, one of the few bright stars of the Communist Party - to splinter the opposition. (Ironically, recent opinion polls suggest that supporters of these bogus competitors have migrated from United Russia, rather than the Communist Party - and that other Kremlin political fabrications have had a similar effect.)

The ongoing government investigation of Yukos, and the arrest of Khodorkovsky in particular, is widely believed to be a roundabout way of discouraging his political ambitions, and to disrupt his attempts to fund Duma candidates and parties.

The failure of the Kremlin´s efforts to engineer a pliable Duma - and recent opinion polls suggest that the Kremlin has its work cut out for it - could put a damper on Putin´s escalating authoritarianism. But the alternative scenario, in which Putin is unable to extend his term in office (or unwilling to risk defeat in attempting to do so), would engender a succession struggle, beginning as early as 2005 or 2006.

Duma deputies - particularly those willing to shift positions in the name of political expediency - would ignore the lame duck Putin. Political intrigue would assume center-stage at the expense of substantive legislation. Even if Putin makes it clear that, regardless of the composition of the Duma, he will not try to extend his term in office beyond 2008, instead opting for a Chinese-style selection of a loyal successor, the din of politicking will drown out anything of substance.

But even an electoral defeat for the Kremlin´s forces on Dec. 7 would not necessarily mean that Putin will have to resign himself to retiring from the presidency after two terms. A new Duma that is not initially to Putin´s liking could still be molded to be comply with the Kremlin´s wishes. The opposition - as typified by the Communist Party and the so-called Liberal Democrats, led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky - has become too enamored of the trappings of power to want to risk losing them by coming into conflict with the Kremlin.

The dangers of heightening authoritarianism are clear. Increasing government control over the news media and the electoral process, the ongoing war in Chechnya, the attack on big business and the growing role of former security officers are just a few recent vivid examples. Voters need to think hard about what it would mean to sacrifice what passes for democracy in Russia, in favor of a further strengthening of authoritarian rule.

Alexander Bim is a political analyst at IMAGE-Contact Consulting Group in Moscow. Kim Iskyan is a former securities analyst for the Russian equity market.

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