Back in the USSR?

News Abroad

Mr. 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.”

The outcome of Russia’s fifth post-Soviet parliamentary elections was, seemingly, a triple victory for the Russian President Vladimir Putin:

First, United Russia, whose only listed candidate on the ballot was Putin himself, won the elections with an impressive 64% 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 into parliament were miserable, the Kremlin was spared the embarassment of only one or two parties passing the 7% barrier. This will allow Putin and his spin-doctors to claim that democracy is well and alive in Russia. 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 given to 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%, i.e. 2% lower than now. Apparently, only around 10% of the overall vote was wasted for minor parties, on Sunday. Four years ago, this number was closer to 30%. This has allowed Putin to already claim, with some justification, that the legitimacy of the 5th post-Soviet State Duma is higher than that of the 4th. 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 2nd December 2007 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, more and more with every passing week, degraded 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. Apparently, there was a concerted action of staged protests by former SPS activists who had, allegedly, not been paid by their party for campaign work, and journalists from the state-owned TV channels who where “at the right time at the right place,” and reported extensively (though without much detail) from 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 voter’s in view of the seemingly manifest 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 to a monistic system where Putin’s “vertical of power” is slowly soaking through all major elements of society – party and non-party politics, federal and local administration, mass and elite media, high and low culture, etc. 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 and campaigning 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 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 reminds one of the late Soviet one, and is becoming again an organization of mediocrities. Once more, Russia’s traditionally numerous sycophants -- rather than its also plentiful talents -- will be making careers in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Above-mentioned Russian TV journalism is an example: Few Russian’s would deny that the reporters and moderators 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 any more as a political reporter, commentator or satirist for a major TV channel. Instead, these professionals now work for minor media stations, deal with non-political themes, or have, as Savik Shuster has, 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 or culture. The political and intellectual leaders of the Western and other countries of the world will be facing a Russian elite that does not deserve its name. Russia’s “top people” will be again a gathering of brown-noses who are good in 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 fair contestation, 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 hostage of his personal political ambition, intellectual immobility and psychological complexes.

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Arnold Shcherban - 12/25/2007

"Prosperous"? Who are?
10-15% of the Russian population, may be...
Mr. Hughes is obviously misinformed in this regard.
It's not that I would vote against Putin, being common Russian citizen, but his achievements, though significant in comparison with the
anarchy of 90s (so dear to the US elite then), are much less impressive than the laudatory remarks
of some US political figures and historians suggest.
And thanks to ... Ronald Reigan.
How sick and tired I'm with that barraging praises to Reigan every time the Cold War end and collapse of the Soviet Union are mentioned!
If any single politician has to be thanked for those events (highly debatable issue, by itself) it should be Gorbachev, not Reagan.
Moreover, had Reagan and the West, in general, taken the advantage of the tremendous opportunities for the mankind offered by Gorbachev then, we would have lived in much more peaceful and less dangerous world right now.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 12/23/2007

Putin's Russia is happy, prosperous, pays its bills and does not menace its neighbors, other than a few former Soviet republics. It is facing West and hoping to join the most advanced economies in the future. What do we care if Putin is not Thomas Jefferson? Our relationship with Russia is infinitely better than our cold war relationship with the U.S.S.R.--thanks to Ronald Reagan. We don't really have any justification for complaining about Putin. Whatever his failings, he has given Russia a strong dose of stability and material progress, and perhaps as much justice as its people have ever enjoyed over many centuries.