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Russia: Duma Elections -- Pro-Western Parties Get Run Out Of Parliament, But Is Their Influence Lost? (Part 2)

Voters in yesterday's elections to Russia's State Duma routed right-wing parties from power. Neither the Union of Rightist Forces, led by privatization mastermind Anatolii Chubais, nor the Yabloko party, led by economist Grigorii Yavlinksii, appears to have broken through the minimum 5 percent barrier. This means they are both set to be excluded from the new parliament, aside from a handful of single-mandate constituencies they may capture. The new Duma will thus have no significant pro-Western bloc. Why have Russia's voters turned against liberalism in favor of left-wing, nationalist ideology and what are likely to be the consequences?

Prague, 8 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The West's favorite candidates in yesterday's Russian Duma elections ended up its biggest losers.

The well-known, telegenic, and liberal-minded economist Grigorii Yavlinskii -- a fixture of Western news programs -- led his Yabloko party to electoral failure. So did Anatolii Chubais, father of Russia's privatization in the 1990s and head of the right-of-center Union of Rightist Forces (SPS).

By contrast, a new leftist, nationalist bloc calling itself "Motherland" made it into parliament for the first time. The traditional purveyor of ultranationalist rhetoric, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), also did well. The Communists, also restyled as Great Russia nationalists, may have disappointed their electorate with a poorer-than-anticipated result, but nevertheless came in second.

Keeping in mind that segments of Unified Russia, the Kremlin-organized party which won a decisive victory, also espouse strong nationalist tendencies, it is clear that the country's voters have sent a strong message which can be summed up as a rejection of the Western-style, liberal economic and social policies initiated in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

How can this pendulum swing be explained? Vladimir Pribylovskii, head of the Moscow-based Panorama political think tank, told RFE/RL that the defeat of Yabloko and SPS is not surprising. At best, Pribylovskii says, the total electorate in Russia for right-of-center liberal parties totals not more than 10 percent to 15 percent. And it is an electorate that is split -- to put it bluntly -- between the millionaires who initiated privatization and the enlightened urban intellectuals that were largely impoverished by it. The two groups were unable to unite -- with the millionaires voting for Chubais's Union of Rightist Forces and the intellectuals voting for Yavlinskii's Yabloko party.

"The two electorates don't go together. The impoverished intelligentsia, which lost money thanks to the reforms initiated by [Yegor] Gaidar, Chubais, and [Viktor] Chernomyrdin, is not going to vote for people driving around in their Mercedes who profited from and initiated these reforms," Pribylovskii said.

The reason most Russians cannot support openly reformist right-of-center parties is simple: most Russians, especially outside of the major cities, do not feel they have profited from the last decade of reforms initiated by such parties. Many more Russians feel left behind and poor, making them responsive to nationalist, leftist appeals. With the Kremlin this year not supporting any right-of-center faction, Yabloko and SPS began and ended their campaigns fractured and isolated with a largely unpopular message -- leading to their poor results.

By contrast, the Kremlin-inspired Unified Russia party, as its name implies, managed to appeal to a large swathe of the Russian electorate. By remaining fuzzy on the issues, refusing to engage in televised debates, and emphasizing its links to President Vladimir Putin, the party became all things to all people. It drew nationalists attracted by Putin's patriotic rhetoric as well as industrialists seeking to be under the Kremlin's protective umbrella. Unified Russia broadened the political center and as a result, took potential votes away from both the right wing and left wing of the spectrum.

What was left was divided up by a weakened Communist Party, Vladimir Zhirinovskii's Liberal Democratic Party, and the new Motherland bloc.

What, then, is likely to be the effect of this new Duma and does it mean the significant influence of liberal economists on Kremlin policy is now over?

Paradoxically, says long-time Russia analyst Stephan De Spiegeleire, of the RAND Europe think tank in The Hague, the influence of men like Yavlinksii and Chubais is not likely to diminish at the Kremlin -- and the new, more uniform Duma may be just the vehicle they need to see their policies put into practice.

As it has demonstrated over the years, Zhirinovskii's LDPR, while invoking extremist rhetoric, is actually a pliant partner to the Kremlin's wishes on the Duma floor. The new Motherland bloc is expected to be the same, which means that Putin is likely to have an unassailable two-thirds constitutional majority in the new parliament.

Russia's voters, in effect, have created a rubber-stamp legislature whose weight is likely to be greatly diminished in the months and years to come. If Putin wins re-election next March, as seems more than likely, he will then be free to undertake any reforms he wishes. And those reforms, as De Spiegeleire points out, are likely to involve painful restructuring of the public-utilities sector, the bloated state bureaucracy, and other areas that have long been the target of the liberal economists.

"I think that's the big irony of these elections. I think right now, the average voter probably thinks: 'Yeah, this reflects what I wanted to see in the Duma.' But more than anything else, he has basically voted the Russian Duma into irrelevance. And if that's the case, then indeed he will feel slighted if indeed these more radical reforms are passed, say somewhere by the middle of next year. But there will be very little that he can do about it," De Spiegeleire said.

Vladimir Pribylovskii is even more blunt: "If they get these 300 seats and it seems they will, they will institute a third term for Putin. They are just going to approve everything Putin wants. If he proposes uniting Russia with China, he will have 300 votes. If he wants to make Russia a state of the United States, he will also get 300 votes."

Since the locus of power will have shifted away from the Duma, De Spiegeleire says, the architects of the planned reforms may not be needed in the Duma -- they will be able to lobby directly in the Kremlin. "A lot of the agenda that will be realized, as I said, as I surmise, after the presidential elections, I think will still very much have an ideological debt to Yabloko and the Union of Right[ist] Forces," he said. "And I think behind the scenes they will continue to be very influential."

All analysts say the process is not likely to get under way, however, until after Putin wins a second term. Expect no bold reforms or right-wing rhetoric from the Kremlin until after March.

For more on this story and other information on the parties and key individuals running in the Russian elections, see The Russian Federation Votes 2003-04