Indeed, the country's main "party of power," headed by State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, came in first place in 13 of 14 of those contests, averaging 46 percent of the vote, and was outpaced only in Stavropol Krai, where A Just Russia, the newly created second "party of power" headed by Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov, came in first among the parties.
It should be noted, however, that the Unified Russia candidates who won in single-mandate districts in Stavropol give the party a total of 15 of the 50 seats in the regional legislature; A Just Russia has a total of only 12 seats.
Unified Russia will be the only party with representation in all 14 regional legislatures.
That the main Kremlin-backed "party of power" dominated the regional elections is hardly a surprise, especially given the changes in Russian election law that increased the minimum share of votes required for a party to win parliamentary representation from 5 percent to 7 percent, scrapped minimum turnout requirements, and barred voters from voting "against all" candidates.
Unified Russia also enjoyed a monopoly on so-called "administrative resources." In just one example, Unified Russia won the right to appear first on ballots in eight of the 14 regions despite the fact that the ballot order was supposed to be determined by chance, the daily "Novye izvestia" reported on February 22.
"Under the absolute domination by the main 'party of power,' the presence of other parties is allowed, but only loyal ones."
In addition, some political parties charged that the refusal by regional election commissions to register them for the elections was politically motivated: in perhaps the most controversial case, Yabloko was kept off the ballots in its erstwhile stronghold, St. Petersburg.
In the end, just four parties -- Unified Russia, A Just Russia, the Communist Party (KPRF), and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) -- were registered for all 14 regional elections.
In what cynical observers might see as an attempt by the Kremlin to create the appearance of genuine political competition where little actually exists, Unified Russia and A Just Russia -- both backed by the Kremlin and unswervingly loyal to President Vladimir Putin -- fought each other bitterly, with A Just Russia declaring its adherence to "socialism" and attacking Unified Russia for monopolizing power and representing corrupt entrenched interests.
Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky (file photo)
According to "The Moscow Times" on March 13, Putin's deputy chief of staff, Vladislav Surkov, pointed to the competition between Unified Russia and A Just Russia -- and the March 11 elections more generally -- as evidence that political pluralism is alive and well in Russia.
"A Just Russia competed confidently in these elections, showing that the ferocity of political battle is not waning in this country," RIA Novosti quoted Surkov as saying. "Any democracy is characterized by a steady list of primary players in the political field.... The fact that four parties ran successfully shows that the political playing field has basically been formed."
Sergei Mironov, for his part, praised his party, A Just Russia, for "having returned real competition to politics," ITAR-TASS reported on March 12. A Just Russia, it should be noted, placed second in St. Petersburg, Leningrad and Vologda oblasts, the Komi Republic and Daghestan.
Opposition leaders, needless to say, saw the elections in a much different light. "Putin's regime needs rigged elections to keep their democratic window, pretending that it still [is] a member of the civilized nations," AP on March 11 quoted Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion who leads the Other Russia opposition movement, as saying.
Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky said in a statement posted on the party's website (yabloko.ru), on March 12: "In the system of sham democracy that has consolidated in Russia, elections occupy a far from central place; the multiparty system is restricted. Under the absolute domination by the main 'party of power,' the presence of other parties is allowed, but only loyal ones."
According to some observers, the Kremlin wants A Just Russia to succeed, but within certain limits. The daily "Vedomosti" reported on March 13 that while Mironov has vowed that his party will defeat Unified Russia in December's State Duma elections, that goal is not shared by the presidential administration.
"According to a source in the Kremlin, the danger in the A Just Russia project is that it will, with populist slogans, stimulate opposition and criticism of the authorities and this could turn into a problem for the election of a new president," the newspaper noted. "Moreover, the next president could confront 'a swampy and hard-to-traverse parliament.'"
For that reason, the Kremlin may actually be happy that despite the relatively good showing of A Just Russia in the March 11 elections, it was apparently unable to supplant the KPRF as Russia's main left-wing party.
The preliminary results announced on March 12 by Central Election Commission Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov showed that the KPRF won 16 percent -- coming in second place in seven regions -- while A Just Russia won 11.7 percent and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's LDPR came in fourth with an average of 10 percent of the vote in each region.
Perhaps the biggest surprise from the March 11 elections was the showing of the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS). In contrast to Yabloko, which failed to finish in the top five in any of the four regions where it was on the ballot, the SPS, according to preliminary results, broke the 7 percent barrier to win representation in the legislatures of the Komi Republic, Stavropol Krai, and Leningrad, Samara, and Tomsk oblasts, and came close to breaking the 7 percent barrier in Moscow and Oryol oblasts.
Offering a possible explanation for the SPS's relative success, the daily "Novye izvestia" wrote on March 13 that shortly before election day, SPS leader Nikita Belykh appeared on the federal television channels "noticeably more often than usual."
"Observers tend toward the opinion that access to air time was a kind of payment from the Kremlin for the SPS's loyalty," the newspaper added. "We recall that the SPS, unlike Yabloko, did not take part in the March of Dissent that took place at the beginning of March in St. Petersburg, although the rightists condemned the harsh actions of the law-enforcers against the participants in the action."
The newspaper noted that Boris Gryzlov, the State Duma speaker and Unified Russia leader, said on March 12 that he is certain the SPS will win representation in the next Duma.
(Jonas Bernstein is a Russia analyst based in Washington, D.C.)