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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Vladimir Putin: Pathetic Coward

You know how Russophiles always make fun of the Russian opposition, especially Garry Kasparov, saying how pathetic and laughable they are? Well, if they're right, then why is dictator Vladimir Putin so afraid of them? Who, dear reader, has more contempt for the people of Russia than the man who doesn't trust them to reject that opposition and therefore won't give them the chance? The New York Times reports:

With Tight Grip on Ballot, Putin Is Forcing Foes Out

Balloting for Parliament will be held across Russia in December, and this much is already clear: Vladimir A. Ryzhkov, who was first elected in the turbulent yet hopeful days after the Soviet Union’s fall and then blossomed into a fervent advocate for democracy, will lose. So will Viktor V. Pokhmelkin, who used his seat to crusade against corruption in the police and other law enforcement agencies. Swept away, too, will be Anatoly A. Yermolin, a K.G.B. officer turned liberal stalwart who has been a lone voice in rebellion against President Vladimir V. Putin’s expansive power.

Nearly eight years after Mr. Putin took office and began tightening his control over all aspects of the Russian government, he will almost certainly with this election succeed in extinguishing the last embers of opposition in Parliament. Strict new election rules adopted under Mr. Putin, combined with the Kremlin’s dominance over the news media and government agencies, are expected to propel the party that he created, United Russia, to a parliamentary majority even more overwhelming than its current one.

The system is so arrayed against all other parties that even some Putin allies have acknowledged that it harks back to the politics of the old days. Sergei M. Mironov, a staunch Putin supporter and the chairman of the upper house of Parliament, suggested recently that United Russia seemed to have been modeled on a certain forerunner. “I think that the television broadcasts from the United Russia convention reminded a lot of people of long-forgotten pictures from the era of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union,” said Mr. Mironov, leader of another pro-Putin party, Just Russia.

Mr. Putin’s second presidential term expires next year, and under the Russian Constitution, he cannot run for a third consecutive term. At the lavishly choreographed convention of United Russia this month, he indicated that he would transfer his power base to the party and the Parliament and could become prime minister next year. The announcement raised the stakes for the December election. The president currently appoints and wields far more power than the prime minister, but that could change should Mr. Putin become prime minister. Some analysts are speculating that Mr. Putin may try to create a parliamentary system with a strong prime minister and the president as a largely ceremonial post, akin to the arrangement in countries like Italy or Israel.

Mr. Putin has high approval ratings, and whatever the political climate, Russians today have far more economic and social freedoms than existed under Communism. Many people would like Mr. Putin to remain president, giving him credit for the strong economy and stability of recent years. Still, it appears that he is leaving little to chance in the parliamentary races. “This is the first time in post-Soviet history when only the Kremlin decides who can participate and who can’t,” Mr. Ryzhkov said. “The Kremlin decides which party can exist and which party cannot. For the first time in post-Soviet history, a wide specter of political forces cannot participate in this election. I call it selection before election.”

Mr. Ryzhkov’s party, the Republican Party, one of the oldest in post-Soviet Russia, was disbanded by the government this year after it was accused of not having enough support under the new rules. Mr. Ryzhkov said his party easily met the standard but said officials ignored the evidence in a sham proceeding. First chosen in 1993, soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Parliament in its early years was a raucous center of power that often challenged the president at the time, Boris N. Yeltsin. In Mr. Putin’s first term, it sometimes retained that role, but Mr. Putin has steadily reined it in, and these days, it is considered little more than a sidekick of the Kremlin.

Mr. Putin has said that the tougher election rules are in part intended to eliminate the fractious politics that he asserts are caused by a proliferation of small parties. In recent months, he has contended that he is a champion of multiparty democracy, though he has also said that the system needs time to develop. “We cannot build Russia’s future by tying its many millions of citizens to just one person or group of people,” he said last month. “We will not be able to build anything lasting unless we put in place a real and effectively functioning multiparty system and develop a civil society that will protect society and the state from mistakes and wrong actions on the part of those in power.”

In the last parliamentary election, in 2003, half of the 450 seats in the lower house of Parliament, called the Duma, were allocated according to geographic districts, and half were allotted based on party support. (Members of the less powerful upper house, known as the Federation Council, are appointed.) The 2003 election was also heavily skewed in favor of United Russia, political analysts said, and the party swept to victory.

Even so, liberal and independent lawmakers were able to retain a toehold. They won a handful of races by mounting grass-roots campaigns in geographic districts, allowing them to form one of the last bastions of opposition to Mr. Putin inside the government. Among the victors were Mr. Ryzhkov, from Siberia, and Mr. Pokhmelkin, from Perm, in the Ural Mountains region in Russia’s center. After the election, saying that he was responding to several acts of terrorism in Russia, Mr. Putin declared that the government structure needed to be centralized to unify the country. He pushed through legislation that abolished geographic districts in parliamentary elections and did away with elections for regional governors.

In the parliamentary election on Dec. 2, Russians will vote only for parties, not for candidates. What is more, parties now need 7 percent of the national vote to gain seats in Parliament, up from 5 percent. They also need to submit proof that they have at least 50,000 members to be recognized as official parties, up from 10,000. It now seems possible that United Russia’s advantages are so great that it will be the only party to surpass 7 percent. In that case, the Constitution requires at least one other party in Parliament, so some token seats will be allocated to the second most popular one.

Andrew C. Kuchins, director of the Russia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the liberal opposition was vulnerable because its leaders had quarreled and failed to present a united front. He said Mr. Putin seemed to want to establish United Russia as a force that would long dominate Russia, akin to the governing parties in Japan or Mexico in the 20th century. “Putin has methodically over the last seven years been reducing the power of any other locus in the system that is independent,” Mr. Kuchins said. “This is the final nail in the coffin. And it doesn’t look like that coffin is going to get opened anytime soon.”

Mr. Putin’s allies said United Russia was winning elections not because the rules were biased, but because the public approved of Mr. Putin and valued the nation’s new strength. [LR: That's what they said about Stalin, too.] They said Russians looked askance at the example of Ukraine, the neighbor to the west, where three leading parties have been closely matched and have regularly feuded over the last three years. “For Russians, the Ukrainian scenario is terrifying,” said Igor Y. Dyomin, a spokesman for United Russia in Parliament. Mr. Pokhmelkin, the member from Perm who is almost certain to lose his seat, said he had been increasingly marginalized in recent years, and sometimes even barred by United Russia from making speeches in Parliament. He said that he tried to prod the Kremlin on issues like police corruption and the rights of motorists, but that it was largely futile. “The Parliament has been brought down to the level of a servant, serving the ruling bureaucracy,” he said. “And there cannot be any other assessment.”

And that wasn't the end of Putin's expression of contempt for the people of Russia. The Moscow Times continues the story:

Voters could lose much of their say in the country's affairs under a bill backed by pro-Kremlin party United Russia that would drastically reduce the range of issues eligible for a national referendum. Authors of the bill, which the State Duma passed last week in a first reading, said it was necessary to prevent public discord, while critics said it would give authorities the right selectively to ban any referendum. "There is, for example, a group of disgruntled people who get together and begin to disrupt society," United Russia deputy Alexander Moskalets, one of the bill's authors, said Friday. "We don't need this." [LR: He's quoting Stalin, isn't he?]

The bill is tentatively scheduled for a crucial second reading next month. The Communists have been trying for two years now to hold a national referendum on federal budget issues, but to no avail. The Constitutional Court in March, however, ruled that the party had a right to call for such a plebiscite. But under the new bill, it is unclear on which issues they could call for a nationwide vote. The bill would ban referendums on issues falling within the "exclusive jurisdiction of government bodies," a vague description that leaves room for broad interpretation, experts at the Duma's legal department said, Vedomosti reported Friday. It could leave voters with no chance for a direct say in issues ranging from the federal budget, taxation, international treaties, border agreements and declarations of war, Vedomosti said.

Communist Duma Deputy Viktor Tyulkin said the bill was merely a further attempt by the ruling party to consolidate power in the hands of "an elite segment of the population."

"The people have a right to decide their fate," Tyulkin said.

Moskalets said it would be unthinkable to allow voters a direct say in how the federal budget is drawn up. "Even in small groups of people it is next to impossible to reach agreement on such a complicated issue," he said. "This could create a volatile state in society. Only issues of a general nature should be put to a referendum." The Constitution is one example of a question that should be decided by popular referendum, Moskalets said. The current Constitution was approved by a national referendum on Dec. 12, 1993. The bill must still pass in second and third readings in the Duma, before being sent to the Federation Council for approval and, finally, to the president to be signed into law. The second reading will likely be held within the next four weeks, a United Russia spokesman said Friday.

A number of local referendums have been held in recent years to approve the amalgamation of neighboring regions. A domestic human rights group has published a report maintaining that every major opposition street protest organized in 2007 was either prohibited or dispersed by authorities, Kommersant reported Friday. The report, titled "Freedom of Assembly in Modern Russia," was published Thursday by the nongovernmental organization Legal Team, which was formed last year by members of several human rights nongovernmental organizations.

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