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Russia: Duma Elections -- Putin Solidifies Control Over Parliament (Part 1)

Yesterday's parliamentary elections in Russia appear to have marked a landslide victory for the Kremlin-backed Unified Russia party and a sharp decline for the Communists.

Moscow, 8 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- "It will be a Duma of civil servants, nationalists, and Communists." That was the prediction made by democratic politician Boris Nemtsov just two days before Russia's parliamentary vote. And an amazingly accurate one -- with 90 percent of the ballots counted, Russian Central Election Commission Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov today announced the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party was leading with nearly 40 percent of the vote.

"Unified Russia, 38.8 percent, first place. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation, second place, 12.7 percent. The Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, 11.8 percent in third place. And the Motherland bloc, 9 percent," he said.

The results mark a major victory for the Kremlin, and a major defeat for the Communists, who will continue their role as parliamentary oppositionists with just half the numbers they enjoyed in the previous Duma.

The democratic opposition, meanwhile, will almost completely disappear. Neither Yabloko nor the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) reached the mandatory 5 percent minimum needed to secure any of the 225 party-list seats.

Russian nationalists, however, witnessed a political comeback, with Vladimir Zhirinovsky's LDPR and the fledgling Motherland-Patriotic Union bloc riding into the lower house.

It may be weeks before the final composition of the parliament becomes clear. But preliminary calculations indicate that Unified Russia, together with its allies, is close to achieving the two-thirds majority it would need to initiate key changes to the Russian Constitution -- such as extending Vladimir Putin's presidential term.

Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst with the Carnegie Endowment Fund, described Russia's postelection political landscape in bleak terms. "There was already no system of checks or balances to weigh against the president. Now, with the election of the new Duma, there is even less," he said. "I think the root of the evil is the weakness of civil society in Russia."

A visibly shaken Gennadii Zyuganov, the leader of the Communist Party, last night accused the Kremlin of rigging the elections to ensure victory for Unified Russia and its allies. "This farce, this shameful farce, has nothing in common with the country's interests or with democracy," he said.

The democrats were also visibly unnerved by failing to clear the 5 percent threshold, although both Yabloko and SPS have each won at least three deputies on single-mandate ballots.

SPS's Irina Khakamada, one of very few women to reach the upper echelons of Russia's political scene, lost in her single-mandate district. Expressing her regret, she said the democrats themselves were to blame for their sweeping loss. "It's our fault; it's the democrats' fault that we lost," she said. "We were responsible for ensuring that we won no matter what. But in this we failed."

Yabloko head Grigorii Yavlinskii, whose party received just 4.3 percent of the vote, appeared more philosophical about the outcome, arguing the time for liberal politics has yet to come in Russia. "When people don't get paid, they vote for the [Communists]. When they don't have any water, they vote for the LDPR. For people to vote for Yabloko, they have to have electricity and water, you understand," he said

Many democrats had critical words for surprise winner Motherland, likening party leaders Sergei Glazev and Dmitrii Rogozin to "national socialists" and warning about the danger of "fascism" encroaching on Russia. Motherland ran on a populist mix of nationalism and leftist economics. It has promised the redistribution of Russia's natural-resource wealth monopolized by the country's super-rich -- a pledge that may leave investors wary the Duma may attempt to reverse the privatizations of the mid-1990s. Motherland puts a priority on the defense of Russians abroad, distrusts the West, and calls for an alliance with China. The bloc's website claims Motherland has the support of "God, the people, and the Russian president."

Glazev dismissed the bloc's ties to national socialism -- a reference by the democrats to the Nazism that once ruled Germany -- and pointed as proof to the World War II veterans supporting Motherland.

Glazev outlined Motherland's platform in an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service last week: "We want the authorities to finally work in the interests of national interests -- that the Duma defends the interests of the country and not those of the oligarchs, private corporations, and shadow lobbyists. Until now, the Duma voted like it was paid to, while we need the Duma to vote in the country's interests."

Glazev began his political career as a cabinet member in one of Boris Yeltsin's first governments but walked out in protest against the storming of parliament in October 1993. He later drifted to the Communists and is seen by many as an alternative to Zyuganov.

Rogozin made his political debut defending the rights of ethnic Russians abroad, and later served as deputy head of the Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee and as a special Kremlin negotiator on Kaliningrad. He is said to have the Kremlin's ear on international matters and has gained public attention for his tough pro-Russian stance.

Roughly half of Russia's 109 million eligible voters participated in yesterday's elections, suggesting widespread apathy among voters following a bland campaign season whose outcome was considered by many a foregone conclusion. But what affected the decisions of those Russians who did vote? Leonid Sedov, a sociologist with the VTsIOM-A opinion agency, told RFE/RL's Russian Service that social concerns brought votes to Unified Russia, which ran on broad promises of stability and higher living standards. And the protest vote, which in the past two elections went to the Communists, this time was seized by other parties.

"Why did the protest votes tip in that direction? It seems to me that social motivations appear to give way here to patriotic, 'Great Russia'-style ideas. As a result of that, it's the LDPR and Motherland who win votes," Sedov said.

Motherland, which analysts believe was created by the Kremlin in order to siphon off votes from the Communists, is largely expected to melt into the pro-Kremlin majority along with LDPR. It remains unclear what the Kremlin will do with a two-thirds constitutional majority. Russian Social Affairs Minister Aleksandr Pochinok said the election has handed Putin the capacity for strong action.

"The situation is that, indeed, the president and the majority of the Duma have the possibility of adopting laws, even constitutional ones. Where will this take us? We'll have to see. As a social-affairs person, I hope there will be social reforms. The possibility for that is there. So from this point of view, I am optimistic." Pochinok said.

Pochinok dismissed concerns that Motherland's rise meant a return to old-style isolationist nationalism, noting that LDPR, even at its strongest in the early 1990s, did little to affect Kremlin policy. But other observers are not convinced. Independent Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov, speaking on television yesterday, wondered how President Putin would make good on his promises to modernize Russia when "the wind is blowing in the opposite direction."

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