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Russia: Moscow Shifts From 'Managed Democracy' To 'Manual Control'

Vladimir Putin, dining with his wife after voting on December 2, will head a party with enough seats to change the constitution (ITAR-TASS) December 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- No one was surprised that preliminary official results of the December 2 Duma elections gave a resounding victory to the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party. With some 64 percent of the vote, according to government figures, the party seems set to get about 310 seats in the 450-seat lower chamber -- more than the two-thirds majority needed to initiate constitutional changes.

Moreover, the left-leaning pro-Kremlin A Just Russia party -- which competes with Unified Russia only in manifesting its loyalty to President Vladimir Putin's administration -- somewhat unexpectedly was awarded 7.6 percent of the vote and some 38 seats, giving the Kremlin-controlled parties a solid block of nearly 350 seats. On top of that, the pseudo-opposition Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), which consistently votes with Unified Russia, can expect a faction of some 40 seats. In all, the block of seats in the Duma representing parties that stand for increased centralization and state domination will reach nearly 400 seats.

"There is no doubt this is a different country now," Boris Nadezhdin, a leader of the opposition Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) -- which failed to win seats in the Duma -- told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "We have returned to the Soviet Union. It is not parliament or the next president that will have real power, but the Unified Russia party."

As Putin said in a nationally televised message days before the vote, the Duma elections have set the tone for the presidential election on March 2, 2007, in which a Unified Russia candidate handpicked by Putin will almost certainly sail to an easily stage-managed victory. This new combination of power gives the party and those who control it virtually a blank check in terms of remaking Russia's political balance. "The country is now entering a period of full renewal of supreme legislative and executive authority," Putin said in the same campaign message. "And in this situation it is especially important for us to ensure continuity of the [political] course."

Blueprint For Continuity Of Power

Although calls for changing the constitution have been mounting for months and were renewed on election night by A Just Russia leader Sergei Mironov, major changes will likely be instituted only after the March presidential election. If Putin and his inner circle intend, as it now seems that they do, to establish Unified Russia and its domination of the Duma as the center of political power in the new Russia, they will need to trim the independence of the president.

The model for doing so has already been established. In 2004, in purported response to a series of devastating terrorist incidents including the school hostage-taking in Beslan, Putin's team dusted off an old set of proposals to centralize power and bring the Duma and the regional authorities under the wing of the presidential administration. One of the key changes instituted was the elimination of the direct election of regional heads, who have since been confirmed by local legislatures following nomination by the president. The move cut off the regional heads from their independent sources of support among the electorate.

Analogously, following the presidential election in March, the pro-Kremlin Duma could move to create a parallel system in which the president of the Russian Federation is confirmed by the Duma after being selected by the ruling party. Such a move would greatly simplify the oft-stated main goal of Putin, Unified Russia, and the ruling elite -- maintaining continuity of the current political course. Similarly, the revamping of the political structure in Russia could encompass a reduction of the authority of the Federation Council. It is even possible the upper chamber could be deemed redundant and eliminated -- despite its useful function as a source of sinecures for discarded political tools.

End Of The Liberal-Democratic Opposition

At the same time, the December 2 elections represent a huge -- perhaps fatal -- setback for Russia's liberal-democratic opposition. In the 2003 elections, the main parties of this ilk, Yabloko and SPS, polled about 4 percent each, which was rightly considered a disaster. This year, all the liberal-democratic parties combined failed to poll even 4 percent and none of them individually reached even 2 percent.

The immediate consequence of this defeat is that the parties will not qualify for further state support. Under Russian law, parties that pick up at least 3 percent of the vote are given five rubles ($0.20) per vote received each year. Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky has said that such support is virtually the only source of income for his party. Moreover, parties that fail to poll 2 percent must reimburse the state at commercial rates for the free broadcast airtime and space in state newspapers that was allotted to them during the campaign. This provision of the law gives the state considerable legal leeway to initiate actions against these parties. Finally, parties that failed to receive 4 percent of the vote will forfeit the 60 million-ruble deposit they submitted to participate in the elections.

Considering these new obstacles and the stacked political environment in Russia, it would be little short of miraculous if any of these parties even exist in four years, and a genuine miracle would be required for any of them to have any measurable influence.

As a result of Unified Russia's consolidation of political power and the devastation of the genuine opposition that the official results of these elections represent, Russia can look forward to a political scene dominated by the party of power for years to come.

There is one thing that all four parties in the next Duma will be able to agree on: the Kremlin's increasingly assertive stance on the international stage. If the world sees any unanimous votes coming out of the lower chamber, they will certainly be on such hot-button issues as relations with Georgia, missile defense, NATO expansion, and the like.

One of the first statements that the Unified Russia leadership made on election night was to assert that the new Duma will take up the matter of the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have sought incorporation into the Russian Federation. If anything, these elections represent a manifestation of foreign-policy solidarity that is even stronger than the near-unanimous support they create for the so-called Putin Plan.

Speaking to journalists in October, Putin said Russia will require "manual control" for the next 15-20 years. The December 2 elections have put in place all the tools necessary for his inner circle to exert and extend that control. From "managed democracy," Russia has entered a phase of just plain "management."