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Western Press Review: Duma Elections

  • Brent McCann

Prague, 21 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Western press today focuses on Russia and the interrelated developments of Sunday's Duma elections, the ongoing war in Chechnya and next year's presidential campaign.

NEW YORK TIMES: Most hearteningly, voters showed a clear preference for centrists

The New York Times runs an editorial which argues there are both good and bad messages coming from Sunday's parliamentary election in Russia. In the words of the editorial: "Most hearteningly, voters showed a clear preference for centrists, selecting what may turn out to be the first reform-minded Duma majority since the Soviet collapse." The editorial continues, "But the main centrist party, Unity, allied with President Boris Yeltsin and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, built its success on ... exploitation of the brutal Russian military campaign in Chechnya."

Also the editorial says that the results were influenced by unequal enforcement of election rules, dirty campaigns, and biased television programming. The paper makes the assumption, as the election results were not yet complete, that the communists will remain the largest single party in the State Duma followed by the Unity party.

The editorial says given this result and adding in the candidates from other parties -- such as the reformist Yabloko and Union of Rightist Forces, as well as Fatherland-All Russia -- moderates could come away with more than half of the total seats.

The editorial argues this could make possible both economic reform in Russia as well as ratification of nuclear arms reduction treaties with the U.S. But, in the editorial's words, "Achieving substantive results from the new parliamentary alignment will largely depend on Mr. Putin, a former K.G.B. officer who has built his popularity mainly on Russian military successes in Chechnya."

The paper, commenting on the likelihood of a Putin presidential candidacy next summer, says [Putin's] "own ideological and political instincts are unclear."

And the paper warns that although Putin appears to be a strong candidate now, as the editorial puts it, "Russia's party system is weak, and sentiment can change swiftly in response to unforeseen events, including possible reverses in Chechnya."

The editorial concludes: "What the voters surely deserve is a cleaner campaign than they got this time, with honest media coverage for all sides. Mr. Putin should use his new political strength to assure a fairer presidential race."

WASHINGTON POST: In the long term, it's likely Russian democracy and society will pay a high price

The Washington Post writes in an editorial that "Russia has now staged three such elections in succession -- in 1993, 1995 and 1999 -- all according to the same rules and all reasonably fair." However, the Post also looks with disfavor on biased media coverage of the campaigns.

The editorial continues, "Democracy is becoming normal; the ballot box, rather than violent revolt, is widely accepted as the way to promote change. That wasn't true a few years ago; it still isn't in more than half the republics that emerged from the Soviet Union."

The Post says the elections show that Russians do not want to return to the communist era, given that the Communist Party remained stuck at one quarter of the electorate. But the paper says with dismay that Sunday's vote also showed that Russians desire to have a strong ruling hand from a leader and political system able to restore some order to their lives.

This troubles the paper because, as the editorial puts it: "Mr. Putin and his allies rode to victory chiefly by hitching themselves to a brutal war in Chechnya." The editorial continues, "They spoke of their Chechen victims in the most dehumanizing terms. They whipped voters into a war frenzy with the most slanted propaganda. And they hearkened back to Russian 'greatness' with an indiscriminate attack against a largely defenseless civilian population."

The paper warns that although this tactic worked, in the words of the editorial, "in the long term, it's likely Russian democracy and society will .... pay a high price."

FINANCIAL TIMES: Voters were voting on Mr. Putin and the war on Chechnya

An editorial in the Financial Times also looks upon the Duma elections with mixed emotions. The paper says: "The good news is that the new Duma is likely to be younger, and somewhat more sympathetic towards economic liberalism, than the last one.... The bad news is that political liberalism has been sacrificed in the process."

Putin, the editorial says, is the big victor from the poll. In the editorial's words, "The bloc he invented, known as Unity, has emerged with almost as many votes as the Communists, despite having no policy platform, and no regional organization."

The editorial sees economic liberalism coming from the Union of Rightist Forces, which benefited from Putin's tacit endorsement, but explains that what the majority of the Duma will look like exactly depends on its independent members. And the paper puts it this way: "The chances are that most will side with the Kremlin because President Boris Yeltsin and his government control the [money]." The editorial says that this means the Russian government will have a cooperative Duma.

But the editorial says all of this does not mean a victory for liberalism. In its words: "The voters were not voting on economic reform. They were voting on Mr. Putin and the war on Chechnya. Moreover the victory was achieved with some blatantly undemocratic methods."

The editorial looks into the future and concludes, "This was a wartime election, which saw the electorate rally to the national banner. Mr. Putin hopes to pull off a similar trick to win the presidency next year."

DIE WELT: The electoral success was won by nationalism

In a commentary in Germany's Die Welt, Manfred Quiring also takes the line that the elections were indications of both good and bad.

Quiring says this about the outcome: "One might say that the end justifies the means: the Communists have been sidelined, giving the Kremlin and government the unique chance to force their wishes on a stubborn parliament. But this view is misguided, for two reasons." The commentator says that the electoral success was won by nationalism arising from the war in Chechnya, not political discourse between competing parties. He says the other problem is that while the election strengthened the Kremlin's hold it did nothing to strengthen the country's economic and financial institutions.

Quiring says that Putin winning next year's presidential election would complete the Kremlin's plan. But he says that between now and the presidential elections, it is possible to imagine surprise developments in Russia and elsewhere resulting from the Chechen conflict.

GUARDIAN: The Russian electorate have written out a blank check

The Guardian runs an editorial looking at the possibility of Prime Minister Putin following Yeltsin as Russia's president. The paper also says the Chechen war has influenced Putin's popularity greatly. As the editorial puts it: "Here was a chance for Russia, humiliated by NATO, weakened by IMF-backed reform, to show who was boss in its own backyard. Nationalist Russia had at last got the stronghand it had been yearning for."

The editorial says that while the war's effect on the elections worked well for Putin, it might not for Russia. In the editorial's words: "Mr. Putin could turn out to be a pragmatic leader of a peace-time Russia, or the master of a market-driven authoritarian police state. His action on Chechnya do not bode well." The editorial continues, "The truth is no one knows, least of all Mr. Putin. The Russian electorate have written out a blank check, for which Russia's dwindling democrats could find themselves paying dearly."

AFTENPOSTEN: Putin may well be on the way of becoming Russia's next elected Tsar

In Norway, the Aftenposten runs an editorial also considering Putin as President. In the editorial's words, "His war against what he calls terrorists in Chechnya is popular with the Russians, and so is the combination of his strong-handed methods and his demonstrated intention to continue economic reforms." The editorial continues, "If the final results of the election do confirm that Putin and Yeltsin can get legislation in the Duma passed more easily, the reform process will get a new impetus."

The editorial concludes with this: "It is quite possible that the man Yeltsin produced out of his sleeve earlier this year will win the decisive presidential election in 2000. In his office in the Kremlin,... Putin has a portrait of Tsar Peter the Great, not of Yeltsin, hanging on the wall. He may well be on the way of becoming Russia's next elected Tsar."

BERLINGSKE TIDENDE: We may be witnessing the beginning of the end of the Communists as a political force

In Denmark, an editorial in Berlingske Tidende looks upon the Russian Duma elections with optimism. The editorial says Yeltsin will now have more cooperation from the Duma and Putin may be a favorite in the upcoming presidential election.

In the words of the editorial: "These two conclusions combined create a totally different situation for Russian: greater harmony between President and Prime Minister than ever before since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In addition, there is ground for cautious optimism regarding the continuation of the reform process."

The editorial concludes by saying the possibly declining influence of the Communist Party means that, in its words, "we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of a political force that has dominated all aspects of life in Russia for many years."