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Los Angeles Times, December 21, 2003

Democratic forces in full retreat
Putin's autocracy infects the body politic.

By Robert Service

OXFORD, England - The most important aspect of this month's Duma elections was not the trouncing of the Russian Communist Party or the Liberal Democratic Party but the virtual elimination of the Yabloko group, led by Grigori Yavlinsky. Yabloko has been far and away the most consistent supporter of democratic values in Russian politics. Yavlinsky had stood up for universal human rights, for incorrupt politics and administration, for the rule of law and social justice. Although he never came close to winning the presidential races against either Boris Yeltsin or Vladimir Putin, his participation at least meant that decent values were conserved in the country's discourse.

In putting an end to the roller-coaster uncertainties of the Yeltsin years, Putin has introduced an authoritarianism that bodes ill for Russia's future. United Russia, the big winner in the elections, will not challenge it. Putin encouraged the party's formation without actually joining it. On television, he was visibly delighted with the election results, though his words were scarcely emotional. With the icy calculation of a martial-arts champion, Putin looked forward to a more orderly future for Russia. He contends that a period of political stability is needed for the current phase of economic growth to be made permanent. He has earned golden opinions from President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. On foreign trips, Putin never fails to assert his credentials as a practitioner of democratic values.

The case for Putin is built on the fact that United Russia defeated the threat posed by extremist forces. The second-biggest party in the Duma is the Russian Communist Party, but it has lost voters since the last election, and its leader, Gennadi Zyuganov, has the charisma of a stiff-shirt schoolmaster. Its electoral appeal is heavily tilted toward the older generation, and as pensioners die off or get disappointed by successive defeats at the polls, the Communists look like a spent force.

It is true that Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the nationalist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, has seen a resurgence of support. But he is more clown than serious contender for supreme office. No one seriously expects Putin, who remains popular in the polls, to have trouble in securing a second term as president.

Undoubtedly, Putin has reason to assert that the mega-rich businessmen whom he has been pursuing through Russian and foreign courts took unfair advantage of the privatization scheme introduced by Yeltsin in the 1990s. The Russian Federation is immensely rich in natural resources. Oil, gas and timber exist in superabundance. Ostensibly, every Russian citizen was meant to have an equal pack of shares. In reality, those with political influence or with a sharp eye for opportunity elbowed the rest of society out of the feast of assets undergoing redistribution. Privatization was accompanied by massive fraud and vicious violence. Yeltsin condoned this, especially after he came to need the businessmen's funds to win reelection in 1996.


See also:

Presidential Elections 2004

Los Angeles Times, December 21, 2003

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