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Russia: Putin's Kremlin Searches For Legitimacy

Many participants at opposition Marches of Dissent across Russia were detained on November 24-25 (RFE/RL) November 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Although the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) party is, at best, a long shot to win any seats in the next State Duma, the party has been the target of intense harassment from officials across the country since campaigning began last month. Deputy party leader Leonid Grozman told "Vedomosti" recently the Kremlin's attention means that support for the party is higher than opinion polls indicate.

In short, politics in Russia have reached the point where the only way for parties to gauge their popularity is by measuring the lengths to which the Kremlin will go to suppress them. This is one vivid example of the way in which the country's political system has been deformed by the Kremlin's long-standing insistence on managing every aspect of acquiring and maintaining power. The macro-level contours of that manipulation -- controlling the media, introducing antidemocratic election laws (including the elimination of elections for the heads of regional administrations), virtually eliminating public referendums, introducing strict limitations on political parties -- have been well documented.

Increasing Heavy-Handedness

But the extent of managed democracy in Russia goes much deeper. For example, when the parties contesting the December 2 Duma elections were formulating their list of candidates earlier this year, there was strong evidence that the presidential administration was exercising strong influence, even among parties that are usually viewed as independent. Key supporters of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and the Communist Party were either lured or intimidated away from participation. The SPS initially floated the names of youth activist Maria Gaidar, former Open Russia head Irina Yasina, and outspoken independent Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov as possible national-list candidates. But when the dust settled, the choice fell on little-known literature professor Marietta Chudakova, who has since proceeded to play almost no visible role in the campaign.

The SPS "must act within the framework created by the Kremlin," Ryzhkov told RFE/RL at the time. "As far as I can tell, the Kremlin has no desire to allow representatives of the real opposition to participate in the upcoming elections." Ryzhkov intimated that one of the Kremlin's control mechanisms lies in its stranglehold over the media. "There is an absolutely concrete list of names of people who cannot be shown on television," Ryzhkov said. Selecting one of these people to figure on a party's national list of candidates would be tantamount to choosing a total media blackout. Of course, when "opposition" parties fail to include serious politicians like Ryzhkov in their ranks, those politicians become further marginalized in the public mind.

As the December 2 elections draw nearer, the administration's tactics intended to keep the process to the script have become more heavy-handed. Opposition parties and even the Central Election Commission have noticed a national trend in which police are taking a highly proactive role in the campaign, acting on purported election-law violations even before local election officials have a chance to weigh in on them. "Earlier, election commissions first reacted to violations and then the police, if necessary, became involved," an unnamed member of the Central Election Commission told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" this month. Opposition activists have been questioned in their homes and campaign materials have been impounded on pretexts from drug charges to accusations of hidden advertising. Opposition demonstrations -- as opposed to pro-Kremlin rallies -- have been severely restricted by municipal authorities in Moscow and other cities, and police have been willing to use force to keep things under control.

As the implementation of the Kremlin's political-transition plan devolves from the presidential administration -- and its election-meister, deputy administration head Vladislav Surkov -- to regional and local administrations, such tactics are likely to become more brutal. Local officials, after all, understand that their political futures do not depend on what voters think of them, but on how well they demonstrate their loyalty to the Kremlin and their devotion to President Vladimir Putin's course. And they will stop at little in their competition with one another to demonstrate what capable "managers" they are. The slaying of Yabloko activist Farid Babayev in Daghestan this week following his criticism of the republican administration's manipulation of the election campaign may not be the last such tragedy before the vote.

Suppressing The People's Will

There is little doubt that the managed political system that has been installed in Russia will produce -- or be seen to produce -- exactly the result the presidential administration wants. If anything, the Kremlin could be compelled to falsify the results of the pro-Putin juggernaut Unified Russia downward to compensate for the unrealistically Soviet-style results many regional administrations are likely to come up with on election day.

But that system cannot produce the result that the Kremlin really needs -- legitimacy. The December 2 landslide will not be derived from popular support for Putin or Unified Russia. It will be the product of a dirty combination of undemocratic practices, blatant fear-mongering, the manipulation of public cynicism, and the total elimination of competition. This environment -- "the framework created by the Kremlin," to use Ryzhkov's phrase -- is designed down to the last detail to prevent the expression of the public's will rather than to manifest it.

And, despite the constrained environment of political information and expression, the Russian public broadly understands this. An RFE/RL poll taken last month found that two-thirds of respondents believe the elections are not being conducted honestly, and nearly half are sure the results of the election will be determined by Putin or his administration. Just over 15 percent of respondents said the elections will represent the will of the Russian people.

The presidential administration has made a lot of political capital by spreading the fear of an Orange Revolution-style uprising, by creating the impression the country is surrounded by enemies who want to sink the country into chaos, and by driving home the idea that unity is strength and pluralism is weakness. However, the Kremlin's analysts must be aware that a system based on the semblance of a democratic process is actually fundamentally unstable. The current "framework" allows no room for dissent, for creative criticism, for public influence over political choices -- and that is an untenable situation. The framework must be shifted -- either in the direction of increased democracy or toward undisguised totalitarianism. And given the background of the chekisty surrounding Putin and the policies they have consistently implemented in eight years of power, it seems more than unlikely the shift will be toward democracy.

RFE/RL Russia Report

RFE/RL Russia Report

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