As election day approaches and media attention grows, it is becoming increasingly
apparent that the State Duma elections are a political non-event. Why?
In the four years of President Vladimir Putin's first term, the Duma's
status as a political institution has plummeted. The lower house is now
little more than a rubber stamp for the Kremlin, something like the "legislative
department" of the presidential administration. Clashes between the
Duma's various factions are more theatrical than political.
And no matter how the vote turns out, the Kremlin will have little trouble
putting together a loyal coalition in the Duma that comes close to the
301 votes needed for a qualified majority. All of the parties contesting
the election, save the amorphous and politically and ideologically vacuous
"party of power," have therefore gone down to defeat before
a single vote has been cast.
The next Duma, like its predecessor, will be a club whose members are
primarily interested in cashing in on their demonstrative loyalty to the
executive branch. For this reason, the only real battles in the next parliament
will be contested by the various factions within the Kremlin. This means
that the Duma election only really matters to political insiders in the
If United Russia wins comfortably, receiving no less than 30 percent
of the vote and outstripping the Communist Party by seven to 10 percentage
points, Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin's election curator and architect
of its campaign against the Communists, will have reason to celebrate.
His efforts to bolster "managed democracy" will be judged a
complete success. If the Yabloko party, with its ties to oil major Yukos,
fails to clear the 5 percent hurdle for representation in the next Duma,
and its place is taken by the Homeland party led by Sergei Glazyev and
Dmitry Rogozin, the Yeltsin-era Family group in the presidential administration
will strengthen its position significantly. One of the first consequences
would likely be the resignation of Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, whom
the Family (Roman Abramovich, Alexander Voloshin, Valentin Yumashev et
al.) have long wanted to replace with Igor Shuvalov, now the deputy head
of the presidential administration for economic issues.
If United Russia and the Communist Party finish neck and neck, this
would have serious repercussions for the Family members inside the administration,
and would lead most likely to the sacking of such high-level officials
as Surkov, Alexander Abramov, Dzhakhan Pollyeva and perhaps even Shuvalov.
In this scenario, the Kasyanov government would remain on the job at least
until the winner of the presidential election is announced in the second
half of March.
The election could produce some reshuffling in the opposition's ranks
as well. If the Communists receive less than 20 percent of the vote, party
leader Gennady Zyuganov will most likely have to bow out of the 2004 presidential
race and allow a younger man to represent the left -- either businessman
Gennady Semigin or economist Glazyev. The failure of the Union of Right
Forces to garner 7 percent of the vote would put an end to Boris Nemtsov's
Currently opinion polls show an unambiguous strengthening of United
Russia and its satellite parties, coupled with a serious weakening of
the Communists. However, one should bear in mind that Russian polling
organizations have long ago been transformed into PR tools for election
Having said all that, United Russia will almost certainly cross the
finish line first. Its control of the state machinery will enable a correction
of three to four percentage points in the final tally (and up to 20 percentage
points in some regions). Vote-rigging could cost Yabloko its spot in the
Duma and install Homeland, the Kremlin's latest puppet party, in its place.
But it will not be a key factor in the formation of the next Duma.
The castration of the Duma does not mean that Russia's political wars
have ceased, however. The biggest conflict of the post-Yeltsin era --
between Putin and the 1990s elite -- is just getting underway. The presidential
election next spring will be the first major battleground.
The group of "psychologists" headed by Abramovich that installed
Putin as Boris Yeltsin's heir apparent back in 1999 set their protÎgÎ
two basic tasks. The first was to guarantee the interests of the oligarchs,
primarily the results of privatization in the 1990s. The second was to
provide a buffer between the elite and the people; in other words, to
quell social unrest.
During his first three years in office, Putin handled these tasks admirably.
The oligarchs -- apart from Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, whom
their colleagues had already written off -- had no reason to complain.
This year the situation changed radically. On the one hand, Putin realized
that Russia was in fact dangerously unstable and that various crises were
looming (notably linked to the catastrophic state of Russia's infrastructure)
that could eventually spin out of control, leading the country and the
regime to collapse. On the other hand, Putin faced a direct threat from
big business as former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky prepared to bring
about a government resting on a parliamentary majority with himself at
At this point a new Putin appeared, a leader who recognized the necessity
of restoring the integrity of the state after a decade of domination by
the oligarchs. But the old Putin, the protÎgÎ of the 1990s
elite, also remained. The ensuing schizophrenic standoff between the two
Putins is worthy of the pen of a new Dostoevsky.
The 1990s elite has already lost faith in Putin, however. A great schism
has opened. From now on Putin is a problem, and the 1990s elite will do
everything in its power to ensure that the presidential election is no
walk in the park for the incumbent. Before it can force Putin to revert
to the course he followed during his first three years in office, the
elite needs room to negotiate. Only a poor showing by Putin at the polls
next spring will do the trick.
A "liberal" candidate for president will most likely emerge
in early 2004 -- either Anatoly Chubais or Khodorkovsky. By law, Khodorkovsky
can run so long as he has not been convicted, and his trial is unlikely
to begin before April. Either candidate would be capable of taking 10
to 12 percent of the vote away from Putin, leaving the incumbent with
just 42 to 43 percent and forcing a run-off. The brief interval between
the first and second rounds would be a nightmare for Putin. Enormous resources
controlled by the 1990s elite -- money, political organizations, mass
media, Western pressure groups -- would be brought to bear. With no comparable
resources at his command, Putin would be powerless to fight back. The
lobbyist club that goes by the name of United Russia would betray its
chief benefactor faster than Channel One could report three times that
Putin no longer controls the situation in the country. Resorting to force
would only erode Putin's legitimacy and push the country to the brink
of revolution. As a result, the head of state would have little choice
but to accept the oligarchs' conditions and restore the status quo of
2000-02. Which is to say he would, to all intents and purposes, be forced
to relinquish power.
The main thing Putin ought to do to neutralize this threat is to quickly
form his own nationally oriented elite, as Yeltsin did in the early 1990s
with the support of the United States. Like Yeltsin, Putin should throw
open the floodgates of upward social mobility. But Putin's double, the
protÎgÎ of Abramovich and Co., will not let him take these
steps -- thereby Putin is driving himself into a trap.
As the tedious and inconsequential Duma campaign winds down we glimpse
the beginning of the battle to come. No one can say how it will end, but
we can say that it could possibly lead to the collapse of the state. The
first shots will be fired when the "liberal" presidential candidate
is unveiled. We don't have long to wait.
Stanislav Belkovsky, chairman of the Council for National Strategy,
contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.
the original at
Elections to the State