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Monday, December 10, 2007

Kiselyov on the Duma Elections


Leading Russian opposition pundit Yevgeny Kiselyov (pictured above, he has a radio show on Echo of Moscow Russian radio, along with Yulia Latynina), writing in the Moscow Times, reviews the Duma elections:

IT IS HARD TO IMAGINE

The State Duma elections are behind us. The official results have been released, and it is now possible to draw some conclusions. Predictably, United Russia was the overall winner and walked away with a constitutional majority in the Duma, which gives it the two-thirds majority required to pass laws independently without worrying about how the other parties vote. But paradoxically, the composition of the Duma remains essentially unchanged with four parties represented. The Communist Party holds approximately the same number of seats it had in the last Duma, Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party came out the same, and A Just Russia now occupies the seats previously held by Rodina, which was liquidated several months ago.

The key difference, however, is that the last Duma was formed according to a completely different set of rules. United Russia had a constitutional majority in the previous parliament, but it accomplished this by scraping together a coalition of deputies after they won seats as independent candidates from single-mandate districts or by attracting candidates from other parties. After significant changes were made to the electoral laws as early as 2004, deputies were no longer chosen in single-mandate districts in the 2007 parliamentary vote; instead, voters selected from party lists only. Individual deputy seats in the new Duma will now be determined internally by each party's top administration. This will definitely improve party discipline and conformity.

It will also undoubtedly strengthen United Russia's absolute majority in the lower chamber. In theory, this, should strengthen the party's "popular mandate," if it were not for one thing: The Kremlin broke post-Soviet records for the amount and type of administrative resources that it used to support United Russia in the Duma campaign. Already much has been said about the numerous violations of the spirit, if not the letter, of the election laws during the campaign, of the opposition parties' lack of access to the more influential forms of mass media -- especially state-controlled television channels -- and of the weak campaign debates that United Russia refused to participate in. Of course, the complaints and criticisms from opposition parties and international monitors will have no impact on the Kremlin.

These elections have been all but officially announced as a plebiscite of the people's trust in President Vladimir Putin and his policies. United Russia won slightly more than 64 percent of the vote, but when you take into account the entire pool of eligible voters, a simple calculation reveals that it actually received support from less than 41 percent of the public. This is one indication that the people's vote of confidence in Putin is much lower than the reported election figures. Even if you assume that all those who voted for the pro-Kremlin party A Just Russia also support Putin, the nation's measure of trust jumps only to 45 percent.

The results are paradoxical: United Russia took control of the Duma, but the party, together with Putin, effectively lost the referendum. Of course, it is not unusual for leaders in democratic countries to be elected to office by less than an absolute majority of eligible voters. U.S. presidents, for example, are regularly elected by a minority of the eligible voters, but it would be hard to find one who would beat his chest the way United Russia and Putin did, claiming that the election results represent a nationwide vote of confidence in the president -- especially one whose last term is quickly coming to an end.

When it comes down to it, the purpose of holding a referendum in support of Putin was to ask voters to support the Kremlin's existing economic and political course. Notwithstanding the country's impressive economic growth over the past seven years, many serious unresolved problems have accumulated, and the authorities are in no hurry to solve them. It is hard to imagine that most Russians are satisfied with their quality of life, considering the sharp, unprecedented rise in prices for basic food and other essential commodities. It is hard to imagine that most people support the current health care reforms, social welfare programs and the communal services. It is hard to imagine that millions of small and medium-size business owners voted to maintain the current status quo of constantly being subjected to pressure from the authorities, arbitrary taxes and penalties, huge amounts of red tape, and being forced to gather dozens of documents of questionable necessity -- many of which can be obtained only by paying bribes.

It is hard to imagine that people voted to preserve the current state of affairs when they see that during the eight years of Putin's presidency, corruption has not only gotten much worse, it has virtually become the officially condoned and accepted way of conducting business in most sectors of the economy. To get a feel for this, you don't have to look any further than how today's high-ranking bureaucrats shamelessly show off their wealth in public. It is hard to imagine that Russian army officers voted to maintain the status quo when more than one-third of their families live below the poverty line and more than half must work extra jobs to survive, according to data recently presented by the National Strategy Institute. It is hard to imagine that great numbers of young people voted in favor maintaining the appalling conditions in the army, when so many of the nation's draftees utilize every possible method and scheme to exempt themselves from compulsory service. And it is hard to imagine that hundreds of thousands of motorists voted to keep things as they are, when they are stuck for hours in traffic jams every day.

But there are not a lot of people who publicly acknowledge that these are negative manifestations of Putin's Plan, particularly among the millions who work in the government sector. There is a rich tradition of this public restraint dating back to the Soviet times, when dissent was voiced only in the safe confines of one's kitchen. "Kitchen dissent," as it is sometimes called, by its very nature is not widely heard in society. In a similar way, these voices of dissent were not heard in the Dec. 2 referendum.

Dissidents and human rights advocates were not the main sources of the collapse of the Communist regime and the entire Soviet Union, with all due respect to their courage and achievements. Instead, it was the millions of Communist Party members, Soviet ministers, bureaucrats, KGB officers, diplomats and ordinary, seemingly loyal Soviet citizens who made the difference: Almost every day, after work and in the safety of their kitchen, they criticized the idiotic Soviet system. It was a quiet and isolated form of protest, but it nevertheless had tremendous collective power to ultimately undermine the Soviet regime.

In the same way, the main threat to the Putin's Kremlin is not opposition leader Garry Kasparov, for example, or the leader of the banned National Bolshevik Party, Eduard Limonov, but the millions of people who are becoming increasingly fed up with the quality of life in Russia -- although none of this, of course, is reflected in the official numbers and bombastic statements about the tremendous election results.

How many such of these "kitchen dissidents" are there in Russia? Here's one indicator: In the 2004 presidential election, 49.5 million people voted for Putin, but in the recent Duma elections, only 43.5 million voted for United Russia with Putin heading its ticket. He lost 6 million votes.

This may indicate the beginning of a serious negative trend.

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