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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Zaxi on the Duma Poll

Zaxi Blog reviews the horror of the upcoming "elections" to the Russian parliament:

It must be a sign of the times. How else to explain Vladimir Zhirinovsky playing the part of King Solomon to the Foreign Ministry’s bickering mother in Russia’s latest diplomatic spat?

Russia has been adept at creating frictions out of thin air and these days proved no exception. Somehow the Kremlin is coming away with a hollow feeling from United Russia winning its requisite constitutional majority in the December 2 State Duma vote. It wants to not just dominate – it wants to do so on its own terms. And those terms apparently include a spell of strutting and flaunting. A dose of intimidation for the tut-tut set.

This lack of remorse begins at home. United Russia has metamorphosed the parliamentary election into a presidential one. It is a vote about Vladimir Putin and patriotism. It is a vote about the Russian Slav. And it is also the ultimate display of self-subjugation – United Russia’s brave shedding of pride in any policy or notion that parliament should be a legislative body that writes laws.

United Russia will not debate on television. It will drop its three leaders from the official ballot and run under the single Putin name. And its ads will feature a “Putin Plan” the president himself has had the rare dignity to admit was a hoax. The Kremlin simply has no such doctrine. It is a United Russia invention impressed on the state media and stamped on its campaign posters – under a Lenin bust retouched in Putin’s likeness.

Yet it casts a strong enough spell to make local officials treat small bands of the opposition like radioactive ants. Any association with the unfaithful is now cause for concern. The likes of Mikhail Kasyanov are no longer able to stage a single press conference without the auditorium owner switching off the lights for fear of being questioned about foreign loyalties. The Putin doubters have long been prosecuted. But now they are actually feared. Their contact is liable to spell disaster – loss of state job or business. Prosecution turns to revulsion. The public reflexively gags at the "other."

This of course is all old news. The Russian collective has happily embraced its new self-image. Now it appears the Kremlin wants to tell the world that its opinion on the matter is no longer polite to express.

It should be fairly clear to Western governments that there is little point to “observing” how the Duma poll actually goes. Whether United Russia wins 70 or 80 percent will depend not on how many ballot boxes are stuffed but on which text the Kremlin hands the television newscaster. The OSCE can only really express itself by treating Russia like a Central Asian republic and boycotting the proceedings as undignified. But this would require a moral resolve this generation of Europeans – save for Britain – clearly lacks. Instead the OSCE finds itself shunted by a Kremlin that decided to cheer itself up one dull morning by slashing the observer mission by 80 percent. Because it wants to show that it can.

The OSCE will also be barred from commenting on the election until it returns home so as not to spoil the victory party. Both know what the final opinion will read. But it will not be read in Moscow. Because the Kremlin wants to show how much this opinion matters.

US Undersecretary of State Nicolas Burns called the whole affair “rather unprecedented.” He was then delivered an official Foreign Ministry response that was more unprecedented still – not least because it came replete with spelling and grammar errors suggesting a rather agitated author. One European official was assigned the wrong first name. An OSCE office earned an improper acronym.

The crux of Moscow’s argument was that US democracy was a rather shambolic affair that could hardly pass judgment on Russia. For example: the United States only had 92 OSCE monitors in November 2004. It “restricted” the 2006 foreign team to 18 members. But Russia had 400 in 2000. And another thing – some US elections include both presidential candidates and all sorts of other types for local posts on one ballot.

“So, in other words, from the standpoint of OSCE norms and standards, American democracy is far from ideal,” That particular Foreign Ministry sentence ended in a comma. The concluding one noted that Washington was using “any available excuse” to deny “the fact of democracy in Russia” by accusing Moscow of failing to abide by “arbitrary” foreign monitoring rules.

Washington never bothered to respond. But Zhirinovsky – of all people and quite unwittingly – did. The Kremlin lapdog xenophobe lamented on REN TV that the OSCE was treating Russia as part of some “axis” that included other misbehaving states like Serbia and Uzbekistan.

Zhirinovsky remarked that OSCE teams no longer visit countries deemed reliable enough to stage an election on their own. Countries like… The United States and such. The fact that Europeans want to come to Russia at all was a sign of disrespect. Replace "disrespect" with "concern" or some such diplomatic lingo and Zhirinovsky is left making a completely valid point.

So how on earth did it come all the way to this – that Zhirinovsky displays more reason than Russia’s Foreign Ministry?

It is simply too surreal to fathom that the Foreign Ministry actually believes the logic of its latest diplomatic note. Thus Russia-watching turns full circle: Boris Yeltsin was tracked for whether he could still walk and talk.

And the Kremlin’s latest temperature is taken by whether ministries have patience to scribble grammatically correct tripe.

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