Pro: Vlad The Enabler’ rigged system to win a mandate
How does a man who’s president of his country score a big parliamentary election victory? Easy! He lives in Russia, is running out his presidential term and wants power for life—if the spirit moves him.
The first Sunday of December, Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, pulled such a rabbit out of the electoral urn. He had turned the Duma elections into a referendum on his 10 years as head of state and two-thirds of all voters said “da.”
Is it possible to speak of this election in terms of “free” and “fair”? No—at least, not in any language other than Orwell’s Newspeak. Putin put the full might of the state behind Our Russia, his political machine tarted up as a legitimate party.
Against this police-reinforced juggernaut, the opposition parties could field nothing more potent than wishful thinking and moral outrage.
Putin had the power systematically to hobble the opposition and lock up leaders—and he did. Garry Kasparov, former world chess champion is chairman The Other Russia, the big tent where Putin opponents have gathered, was held in a Moscow jail on the eve of the elections.
Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister of Russia, was detained the same day in St. Petersburg.
Boris Grysov, titular leader of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia, summed up politics Putin-style and the role of parliament with amazing frankness: “The Duma is not a place of debate.”
But if parliament is not the spot, what is its role? The answer seems obvious: to enthrone Russia’s new tsar. After all, United Russia fessed up in its campaign slogan: “We’re Implementing the Putin Plan.” What that plan might be, Putin and his apparatchiks felt no need to explain.
Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s leading daily, shed light on the mystery. It reported United Russia’s party deputy explaining that “the Putin Plan is known only to the president”—Vladimir Putin.
This peak into politics and campaigning as practiced in Putin’s Russia says all that needs to be said and a close-up look at the just-concluded election unmasks any talk of a “free” and “fair” as a crude farce.
The Duma elections were like an “uneven duel,” writes Gazeta Wyborcza’s Moscow correspondent Tomasz Bielecki, a “contest between a well-nourished athlete with a sick and exhausted opponent … who, instead of preparing for the fight, is fending off the prosecutor and the militia.”
Leonid Radzichovsky, a widely published Russian columnist, says the election was really a referendum to confirm Putin as Russia’s “national leader.”
Mind you, there is no such office in the existing constitution, Radzichovsky points out, but “nobody cares and demands clarification.”
Germany’s Der Spiegel examines yet another angle, showing wages of vote buying Russian style: “Yuri concluded Russia would never become a democracy” while “for Vitaly it’s all the same where the money comes from. He’d go and cast his ballot for Putin … because everybody’s voting for him anyway.”
Election carrots are nothing new—in American or German politics. In Putin’s Russia, however, they go hand in hand with the stick.
As reported by the few remaining independent voices in the land, United Russia bosses regularly threatened with dismissals unless they could show they had voted—and nobody had to spell out for whom.
A day after the ballot, international observers had their say. At a press conference in Moscow, Goran Lennmarker, chairman of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, blasted Russia for putting government bureaucrats to work for the winning party.
Luc van der Brande, head of the observer mission sent by Council of Europe, declared it was “unprecedented” for Putin to run for parliament while still serving as president and exercising “enormous influence” on the campaign.
Polite words. But they tell like it was.
Bogdan Kipling is a veteran Washington columnist for The Halifax Chronicle Herald. Readers may write him at Chronicle-Herald, 1650 Argyle St., Halifax, NS, Canada B3J 2T2 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.