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Russia: Election May Mark A Turn In Politics

By Don Jensen

As Russians vote on Sunday (Dec. 19) for a new State Duma, there has been little discussion of the serious issues facing the country. In a news analysis, RFE/RL's Don Jensen argues that the fate of specific parties and movements will be less important than the extent to which the process can begin to change the rules of Russian politics.

Prague, 16 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The central drama of the Russian parliamentary campaign has not been the issues. Instead it has been the competition between two elite coalitions of politicians, oligarchs and regional leaders.

One, Unity (Edinstvo), is centered on the Kremlin; the other, Fatherland-All Russia (OVR) is centered around former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov and Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov. At stake are vast financial resources, political power and, ultimately, the Russian presidency after Boris Yeltsin retires next year.

That elections in Russia are now routine is a healthy sign. Unfortunately, the campaign has displayed the same unsavory characteristics that have marred earlier electoral contests and, indeed, all of Russian politics for much of the Yeltsin era.

First, the political process is criminalized. A large number of candidates who allegedly have committed illegal acts or have ties to organized crime are seeking election. Victory will ensure their immunity from prosecution. In addition, the federal law governing election finance requires candidates for the Duma to report their annual income and its sources, as well as the value of their possessions. In fact, many wealthy candidates vastly understated their income, without fear of punishment. Even when the government has tried to enforce election laws, it has done so inconsistently, disqualifying some candidates on technicalities while allowing other apparent violators to remain on the ballot.

Another problem in Russian politics is that the political parties are weak. Most parties sponsoring candidates are little more than clubs clustered around leading politicians, with little broad-based organization. Only the Communist Party, with several hundred thousand members -- mostly pensioners -- has strong grassroots support.

Even worse, the press is heavily politicized. The print and electronic media have largely reflected the political views of the coalitions who control them. Muckraking by the Kremlin-controlled ORT network and the pro-OVR channel NTV has done little to enlighten the voters, although attacks by ORT anchor Sergey Dorenko on the Moscow mayor have almost single-handedly caused a significant drop in support for Primakov and Luzhkov's movement in recent weeks.

Despite these continuities, there are signs that the election may mark a turning point in Russian politics.

More than at any time in the past decade, voters and their leaders support a uniquely Russian path of development. Other than a rejection of the extreme right or left and agreement on the need for a strong leader, however, there is little consensus on what that course might be.

Although the Communist Party is by far the largest party and is likely to have the biggest representation in the new Duma, it has been unable to expand its core constituency significantly since the last national election. In an effort to court public opinion, the party has finally accepted some aspects of reform, such as private property and the democratic process. But its leader, Gennady Zyuganov, has limited appeal and little hope of succeeding Yeltsin. Instead, the Kremlin's electoral message has targeted Primakov and Luzhkov, not Zyuganov, as the real threat to Russia's future.

The shift in public opinion toward the center has also resulted in declining support for parties advocating Western political and economic models. Boris Nemtsov's Union of Rightist Forces may not receive the 5 percent of the vote it needs to place its party list in the parliament. And Grigory Yavlinsky's Yabloko -- the party voicing the most reservations about the war in Chechnya -- will have trouble making gains.

Regional governors, without whose support no president can govern effectively, are more than ever before critical to the outcome of many Duma contests. Governors form the backbone of both Fatherland-All Russia and Unity coalitions, and are expected to deliver the vote in their jurisdictions.

Finally, the fact that Unity floundered in the polls until Prime Minister Putin announced that he would vote for it demonstrates Putin's increasingly independent political base. In the past, Yeltsin has been unwilling to cohabit with politicians he cannot control. For now, at least, he must do so, since popular support for Putin and the war in Chechnya is virtually all that unites the country.

Sunday's voting will probably produce an anti-Yeltsin majority of Communists, Fatherland-All Russia, and independent deputies. When it focuses on legislative work, it is likely to be at least moderately hostile to the West. Moreover, the broad sense among the anti-Kremlin forces on the need to amend the constitution to reduce the powers of the president is likely to put that issue high on the new Duma's agenda.

The Duma session will be dominated, however, by the question of who succeeds Yeltsin. The legislature may try to weaken Putin -- who in any case remains vulnerable to setbacks in the Chechnya war and to Yeltsin's jealousy. The Kremlin may be able to take advantage of the strains between the Primakov and Luzhkov wings of Fatherland-All Russia: reconciliation between Yeltsin and Primakov for example, is not out of the question. The appearance of an entirely new contender, such as Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo, is also possible.

Alas, a consensus that Yeltsin should leave the scene and Russia should find its own way does not mean there is an agreement on the horizon on a viable approach to slowing the country's decline. Overwhelming support for bringing Chechnya to heel is no substitute for the unifying national idea that many Russians have yearned for since the collapse of Soviet rule.