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The Moscow Times, December 2, 2003

The Elections and the Great Schism

By Stanislav Belkovsky

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 executive branch.

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 political career.

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 purposes.

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 the head.

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.


See also:

the original at

Elections to the State Duma, 2003

The Moscow Times, December 2, 2003

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