| The stunning results of the State Duma elections led many
analysts, as well as certain members of President Vladimir Putin's administration
who oversaw this exercise in managed democracy, to conclude last week that
we have "awoken in a new country." Observers and politicians
alike also claimed this fall, after the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky,
that Russians now lived in a "new country." Having arrived in
Moscow in August, I can only say that going to bed and waking up in a new
country this often is an exhausting affair. (Who sleeps well on planes,
especially when you don't know where you'll be landing?)
Whatever anyone says about these elections, forecasts that they would
be fairly predictable and uneventful have been very wide of the mark.
Nobody really expected that both of the real liberal democratic parties,
Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, would fall short of the 5 percent
threshold needed for party representation in the Duma. Similarly nobody
really expected that the most nationalist parties, LDPR and Rodina, would
between them garner more than 20 percent of the vote. Even the magnitude
of United Russia's victory, giving it a parliamentary majority on its
own, was a bit surprising.
For a supposedly managed democracy and for Putin, whose calling cards
are stability and order, the volatility of voter preferences, judging
by pre-election surveys, is startling. Remember that on the eve of the
election campaign, just over a month ago, United Russia and the Communists
were neck and neck. In the elections, the margin was 3-1 in favor of United
Russia and even greater if you take into account the single-mandate districts.
Rodina emerged from virtually nowhere to take nearly 10 percent of the
vote, and LDPR doubled its share of the vote after a steep decline in
the last two elections. Such extreme volatility reflects highly fragile
and manipulable voter preferences, suggesting that consolidated, mature
democracy is a long way off.
How do we evaluate the performance of the "democracy managers?"
For delivering the president his Duma majority, they should be awarded
the Order of Putin. The principle goal of thrashing the Communist Party
into a marginalized political force went according to plan. But did they
overfulfill the plan or, as is typical in Russian military campaigns,
was there excessive collateral damage?
It is hard to believe that shutting out the liberals and so empowering
the national-socialists (in the last century, we called them fascists)
was in the Kremlin's interests. The decision to cut back on Rodina's media
time and for Putin to meet with Grigory
Yavlinsky just before the elections suggest that, in the last week,
the democracy managers realized the potential dangers -- but by that time
it was too late.
The signal event of the campaign was the arrest of Khodorkovsky, which
unleashed the simmering class envy and perceptions of social injustice
from a decade of chaotic capitalism and widespread impoverishment of the
population. An anti-oligarch campaign was red meat for Vladimir Zhirinovsky,
Dmitry Rogozin and Sergei Glazyev, while it was a stake in the heart of
Yabloko and SPS.
Of course, Yabloko and SPS had other serious campaign deficiencies,
the major one being the ambiguity of their identity as opposition to the
Kremlin, and the second being that they spent too much time squabbling
among themselves. Also, the SPS campaign ad with Anatoly Chubais, Boris
Nemtsov, and Irina Khakamada in a private jet working on their laptop
computers will surely stand as one of the most boneheaded campaign moves
of all time. I don't think their worst enemies could have come up with
a better image to convey their alienation from the public.
But the bad news about the elections may be good news as well. The OSCE
and other international observers are right, of course, that the excessive
use of administrative resources by the Kremlin deformed the democratic
character of this election campaign. But let's face it, the Duma does
not matter that much in Russia's super-presidential system anyway. In
this respect, we all woke up in a very old country last Monday. And whether
it was the tsar or the general secretary, for centuries power has been
highly centralized in the executive.
Shortly after he was elected nearly four years ago, Putin said that
central political power was "in Russia's DNA." That is not to
say that Russia is doomed for historical, cultural, geographic and biological
reasons to authoritarian rule. Even DNA mutates, and sometimes quickly
The central question today is what Putin will do now with his great
parliamentary victory. Last week, under the auspices of the Franklin Delano
Roosevelt Institute, I celebrated the 70th anniversary of the establishment
of U.S.-Soviet relations -- one of the first diplomatic acts under Roosevelt.
This led me to consider possible analogies between Roosevelt and Putin.
Each leader came to power during national times of troubles: in the U.S.
case, the Great Depression; in Putin's case, after a decade of domestic
difficulties and decline in international power. Roosevelt's sense of
mission led him not only to become a great politician, but also a great
international statesmen, undoubtedly the greatest U.S. president of the
20th century. His monumental legacies domestically, with the New Deal,
and internationally, as a coalition partner in winning World War II and
then giving birth to the UN, endure to this day.
If Putin could achieve even half Roosevelt's legacy for Russia by advancing
economic development, promoting democracy (including serving two terms
rather than four) and enhancing Russia's international stature, he too
could leave a great and positive historical legacy; something that I believe
he desires. Just maybe, and it's a big maybe, someday all of us living
in Russia will wake up in a genuinely "new country" -- just
don't expect it to happen overnight.
Andrew Kuchins is director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.
the original at
State Duma elections 2003