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Russia: The Moscow City Duma Election -- A Case Of Managed Democracy

Unified Russia's expected landslide isn't the biggest story in this election (AFP) The 4 December election for Moscow's City Duma are seen by many as a dress rehearsal for the 2007 State Duma elections and the presidential ballot in 2008. Twelve parties are taking part in the Moscow election, with the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party headed by Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov possessing a clear lead.

According to a poll conducted among Muscovites by the independent Yurii Levada Center from 11-25 November, Unified Russia will leave its competitors behind by taking up to 43 percent of the vote.

Yabloko-United Democrats, the joint list of democratic parties that has united for the first time for this election, has 14 percent in the poll, as does the nationalist-patriotic Motherland (Rodina). The poll also predicts that Vladimir Zhrinovskii's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation will overcome the 10 percent hurdle and will have their deputies in the City Duma.

Motherland's Ouster

The campaign heated up on 26 November when the Moscow City Court ruled to ban Motherland from running in the election. The move was initiated by LDPR head Vladimir Zhirinovskii, who accused Motherland of inciting racial hatred in a televised campaign advertisement. The court took the side of LDPR and, in addition, discovered other violations, including the publishing in campaign material of the business telephone number of a Duma deputy.

Motherland leader Dmitrii Rogozin called the verdict "a provocation," and vowed that it would only increase the popularity of his party. However, Rogozin's subsequent appeal to the Supreme Court ended in failure, as the higher court on 2 December ruled to uphold the City Court's ruling.
Motherland's appeal to the Supreme Court ended in failure, as the higher court on 2 December ruled to uphold the Moscow City Court's decision to ban the party from running in the City Duma election.

The ban has been criticized for various reasons by other public figures in Russia.

Ilya Yashin, the leader of Yabloko's youth organization (Oborona), said on 27 November that the television advertisement should be banned -- but not the party. And Central Election Commission Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov said there is little reason for banning the party and that he cannot recollect a similar precedent in the history of Russian elections, RIA-Novosti reported on 28 November.

Many in Russia and abroad believe that the ban has little to do with the defense of democracy from extremism and xenophobia, seeing as it was initiated by the LDPR, a party known for its xenophobic sentiments.

They note that the LDPR and Motherland make use of similar populist slogans in an effort to secure the same patriotic-nationalist voters. Some adherents to this view also believe that both the LDPR and Motherland were created by the Kremlin and, in fact, are tools of its policy against its political opponents.

But while the two parties may be of similar origin, they likely have a very different political futures.

Cut From Similar Cloth

The LDPR was created by its flamboyant leader Zhirinovskii as the Soviet Union was nearing its end. In his memoirs published in 2002, late Kremlin political adviser and diplomat Aleksandr Bovin wrote that in 1990, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev asked KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov to find a "good leader for the opposition." Several days later, Kryuchkov brought in Zhirinovskii and soon he appeared on the Soviet political scene, according to Bovin. Since that time, the LDPR and its leader have invariably played the same role in presidential and local elections -- collecting the voices of the protest electorate and channeling their votes to nowhere.

It is an open secret that the Kremlin sponsored the creation of Motherland in 2003 with the particular aim of splitting the Communist Party electorate and winning its supporters over to its side in time for the Duma election that took place that year. The LDPR could not play this role, as its economic program always touted Russia's "wild capitalism." Motherland countered this by appealing -- as did the Communists -- for social justice and by portraying itself as a "social-patriotic" party.

The debut of Rogozin's Motherland in the 2003 Duma election was more than successful. The party came in third after Unified Russia and the Communist Party with nearly 10 percent of the vote, enough to make it the third-largest faction in the Duma. Success fueled the ambitions of Rogozin and his party to have an independent political role.

In contrast to Zhirinovskii, who has the ability to artfully spout even the most extravagant rhetoric in a way that serves to further his political ambitions, Rogozin chose to incite his supporters by dishing out nationalistic and xenophobic sentiments. This course of action was not one that endeared the party to the Kremlin, particularly after Rogozin and several his colleagues launched a hunger strike in January 2005 to protest the ill-planned monetization reforms introduced by Mikhail Fradkov's government. The strike coincided with a wave of mass social protests by pensioners, and raised newfound populist support for the party in the regions -- as well as the Kremlin's ire.

The Feud Escalates

Meanwhile, Motherland intensified its competition with LDPR, and in many provincial elections in the first half of 2005 it managed to garner more than twice the number of votes as its nationalistic-patriotic counterpart. Motherland's hostility toward LDPR devolved into outright animosity in April when Motherland teamed up with the Communist Party to demand that documents from the KGB archives "shedding light on the role the provocateur Zhirinovskii played during the emerging multiparty system in the former Soviet Union" be published, according to
The debut of Rogozin's Motherland in the 2003 Duma election was more than successful. The party came in third after Unified Russia and the Communist Party with nearly 10 percent of the vote, enough to make it the third-largest faction in the Duma.

The next month, during a Duma session, Motherland Deputy Andrei Saveliev physically assaulted Zhirinovskii and struck him in face.

Motherland also managed to antagonize Moscow Mayor Luzhkov by disseminating 200,000 leaflets critical of Luzhkov's billionaire wife, Yelena Baturina, reported on 28 November. The leaflets posed the question: Seeing that Baturina is worth $1.4 billion and the salary of the average teacher is $130, does that mean Baturina is 10 million times more worthy than a teacher?

The initiative infuriated Luzhkov, who enjoys political dominance in the Russian capital and leads the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia candidates list for the Moscow City Duma election.

Eventually, Luzhkov's, Zhirinovskii's, and others' issues with Motherland coincided with the Kremlin's, paving the way for Rogozin to be stopped. Commenting on the Moscow City Court's subsequent decision to ban his party from competing in the election, Rogozin said on 28 November that the decision was primarily motivated by Motherland's growing popularity and the possibility that it would come in second on 4 December, RTR reported. The Yurii Levada Center poll, which predicts a strong Motherland showing with 14 percent of the vote, gave credence to this theory, commented on 29 November.

Dangerous Precedent

Despite all its nationalistic rhetoric, Motherland boasts a mixed composition. Alongside Rogozin the party has rank-and-file members and moderate social-democrats such as Mikhail Delyagin, who is considered by many to be Russia's brightest economist. All in all, more than 5.5 million people voted for the party in the 2003 State Duma election. Now that the party's banishment from the Moscow City Duma election has been upheld, its supporters' votes will likely go to the Communists and the LDPR.

This scenario should place in the spotlight not only the clash of the country's largest nationalist parties, but the entire election process. As is the case with the imprisonment of former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii, the focus should not be on the fate of the individual political leaders and parties involved, but on the independence of the judiciary, the fairness of elections, and democratic freedoms in Russia.

Campaign Advertising Sparks Controversy

Campaign Advertising Sparks Controversy

A Moscow court has banned Rodina (Motherland), a nationalist opposition party, from running in the December 4 elections to Moscow's City Duma. Judges ruled that the party's campaign advertisement incited racial hatred. The decision has incensed Rodina's leader, who has accused the authorities of trying to get rid of a powerful opposition force....(more)

See also:

Prosecutors Looking Into Zhirinovskii Election Video

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