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RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly, Vol. 3, No. 49, 12 December 2003

The Dangers of "Managed Democracy"

By Michael McFaul

The results of the parliamentary vote on 7 December suggest that Russia has entered a new political era. For the first decade of post-communist politics in Russia, the central cleavage was between left and right, communist and anticommunist, or "reformers" and non-reformers. The central issue was the economy and policies to reform it. The vote tally from the election suggests that a third parameter -- nationalism -- has overtaken these earlier divides and debates. The long-term consequences could be terrifying.

Of the major Russian political parties, three are rising, and three are falling. United Russia, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), and Motherland (Rodina) all won more votes in the 7 December election than in the 1999 Duma election. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), Yabloko, and the Union of Right-Wing Forces (SPS) all won fewer votes in 2003 than in 1999. The last two -- Russia's liberal, democratic, pro-Western parties -- did so poorly that they will not even be represented in the new Duma.

Several factors unite these winners and losers and distinguish them from each other. First, the winners v United Russia, LDPR, and Motherland -- are all parties created initially by the state: the LDPR over a decade ago, United Russia (called Unity before) in 1999, and Motherland during this electoral cycle. In contrast, societal actors founded the KPRF, Yabloko, and the SPS. Parties beholden to the state are gaining popular support. Parties beholden to societal forces are losing strength.

Second, the three winners in the 7 December vote are all loyal to the president. United Russia ran in this election as the party of Russian President Vladimir Putin and is fully subservient to the Kremlin. Neo-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the LDPR leader, and the leaders of Motherland are more colourful personalities than the grey suits leading United Russia, but these two parties will also serve the interests of the president on important issues. In contrast, the three losers are all opposition parties that have never fully succumbed to the president's will.

Third, and most importantly, all three winners in the vote are nationalist parties. Running on the coattails of Putin, UnitedRussia leaders and campaign materials called for a "strong" state and "orderly" country. Motherland leader Dmitri Rogozin even more stridently echoed nationalist themes in his campaign appearances, prompting some of his opponents in other parties to publicly use the word "fascist" to describe his ideology. And the LDPR head, Zhirinovsky, is a long-time populist demagogue who has relied on outrageous xenophobic and racist one-liners to keep his party in parliament since it splashed onto the Russian political scene in the 1993 parliamentary elections by capturing a quarter of the popular vote. In this year's election, Zhirinovsky's main campaign slogan was "I am for Russians, I am for the poor," an echo of the nationalist-socialist cocktail that proved so explosive half a century ago.

After the 1993 election, many (including this writer) worried about the spectre of fascism in Russia. After his strong showing in 1993, however, Zhirinovsky and his ideas seemed to fade from the centre of Russian politics. In 1999, his party barely made it into the Duma, winning a mere 6 percent of the vote. At the end of the decade, it seemed as if one of Russia's greatest successes was that nationalism had not taken hold as a major force in Russian politics -- a sharp contrast to the deadly and destructive role that nationalism played in Serbia, the only other empire to collapse after the fall of communism.

Today, Zhirinovsky is back. And so are his clones. In ideological terms, the losers in this election can be mapped on the traditional left-right scale. The KPRF is the left of centre party and the SPS and Yabloko are right of centre (with Yabloko closer to the centre). For most of the 1990s, those on the right battled to keep those on the left out of power. As in Western party systems, economic debates defined the battle lines between left and right in Russia. Now, this battle is over and serious debates about economic issues are no longer a central theme of Russian politics.

To be sure, the KPRF has tried to capture the nationalist, patriotic vote before, but never with any success. And SPS leader Anatoly Chubais has recently floated the idea of Russia as a "liberal empire," but the concept did not steal votes away from the three winning nationalist parties. Instead, these parties won votes in the past without inflaming nationalist sentiments within the Russian electorate. This time around, their non-nationalist themes seem less important to Russian voters.

It is premature to predict Russia's long-term political trajectory after a single vote. We made that mistake back in 1993. That said, the trend line after the elections does not look promising. Throughout his presidency, Putin has sought to eliminate or emasculate alternative sources of political power. Since becoming president in 2000, Putin has chased away or arrested oligarchs with political ambitions, seized control of all national television networks, emasculated the power of the Federation Council, and tamed regional barons who once served as a powerful balance to former President Boris Yeltsin's presidential rule. The individual rights of Russian citizens, including especially those living in Chechnya, are abused now more than at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin believes that he is on a mission to clean up the mess left behind during the Yeltsin era and create a new and powerful Russia state. "Managed democracy" is the euphemism for this agenda of democratic erosion.

To this less democratic regime, the Kremlin has now added nationalism as the principle ideological theme, and helped to empower nationalists as the rising political leaders. Under the control of the more moderate, Western-oriented Putin, the increasingly centralized, less pluralistic political regime in Russia today has not been deployed to carry out massive repression against the Russian people or threaten countries on Russia's borders. But who takes power after Putin? The electoral results suggest that the liberals have no chance, while the nationalists of a more virulent sort than Putin are up and coming. In their hands, the regime that Putin has built could become truly threatening to the people of Russia, to Russia's neighbors, and eventually to the West.

Michael McFaul is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, associate professor of political science at Stanford University, and a non-resident associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.


RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly, Vol. 3, No. 49, 12 December 2003

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