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The Moscow Times, December 15, 2003

New or Old Russia?

By Andrew Kuchins

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 and unexpectedly.

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.


See also:

the original at

State Duma elections 2003

The Moscow Times, December 15, 2003

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