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Western Press Review: Pro-Kremlin Unified Russia Party Comes Out On Top As Putin 'Tightens His Grip'

Prague, 8 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A review of media commentary today finds much discussion of yesterday's parliamentary elections in Russia, as many observers argue that the conduct of officials and the media in the run-up to elections left little doubt that the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party would come out ahead in the polls.


A "New York Times" editorial says the parliamentary elections have left the impression that Russian democracy is still "a long way from any Western model." The deadly train bombing in southern Russia on 5 December "seemed likely to produce still more votes for President Vladimir Putin, as Russians rallied in anger behind their leader's unyielding stance" on Chechen separatists, blamed by the Kremlin for the attack.

But Russians do take the right to vote seriously, the paper says. Today's Russia has 23 competing political parties taking part in "furious campaigning" amid plenty of "lively commentary and criticism." Unfortunately, many of the campaigners are not bona fide national political parties but "a confusing array of factions and individuals." One serves as the "bully pulpit" for an influential former governor, another for a former college professor.

Even more troubling, says the paper, "is that so many of the candidates are the new rich, leaving the distinct air of tycoons and oligarchs brazenly buying access to power -- or to more wealth." Ironically, nearly one-third of the Communist candidates are millionaires, it points out.

"This is what the Russians now call 'managed democracy,'" the paper writes. "It is not democracy yet, but at least the arbiter remains the ballot box."


A "Wall Street Journal Europe" editorial says by the time Russian voters headed to the polls, the outcome of yesterday's State Duma vote "was in little doubt." The sense one gets of the new Duma is that it is "more pro-Kremlin, more nationalist and far less Western-oriented and reformist."

Russia's elections "are freer and fairer than they once were," the paper says. "But it's hard to avoid the sense that Russia took a step backward" with yesterday's vote. "Four years ago, [there] was an atmosphere of real political competition. Parties extolled widely different electoral platforms, and media coverage was vigorous." Yesterday's vote, by contrast, "reflected a yearning for 'stability,' order and the prestige of the state." Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin "has tightened his grip on the instruments of power."

Recent trends in Moscow raise questions over how much reform Putin is willing to implement. Economic reforms "have been halting [and] the judiciary remains heavily politicized." Although some 23 parties competed in the elections, "there was little information about any of them. The media was restricted by stringent laws on election coverage and engaged in widespread self-censorship out of fear of the power elite."

Not one political opposition party "has proved capable of a serious challenge," the "Journal" says. "Whatever Mr. Putin chooses to do with the enormous power accruing to the Kremlin, a party of total power is not a healthy thing for a democracy."


An "Irish Times" editorial says the 5 December train bombing in southern Russia, which left 44 dead, "exposes [Russian President Vladimir Putin's] failure to resolve Russia's security crisis."

The campaign in the run-up to yesterday's Duma vote was "dominated by Mr. Putin's promises to put an end to corruption, reinforce law and order and reassert Russian pride and dignity in world affairs. It has been biased in his favor by manipulation of the state-dominated media, widespread reports of electoral fraud, and the use of public administrative resources by the United Russia party." The Duma is now seen as "an ineffective legislature excessively subject to executive power." Many Russians "are cynical about such abuses and do not believe they can genuinely affect the country's future by going to the polls."

But the election offers a chance "to look more closely at Russia's trajectory under Mr. Putin's rule. The major motifs are a continuing strong state, a weak and fragile civil society, a dominant leader, an emphasis on order and authority rather than rights [and] a ruthless war against Chechen separatism." Moreover, the Kremlin appears to desire "to re-establish Russia's influence with former Soviet states and assert its role as a global power."

The Irish daily says "it should not be assumed that Mr. Putin aspires to a thoroughgoing Westernization."


Georg Watzlawek, writing in the German financial paper "Handelsblatt," comments on the preliminary results of yesterday's Russian elections, which, as expected, produced a landslide victory for the Unified Russia party, a key supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But Watzlawek views the results as "only a temporary indicator of stability in Russia. There are two forces dominating the fate of this vast country, and both are volatile: oil and Putin's ability to strike a balance between modernization and autocracy."

Oil prices are expected to remain at the currently high levels for the foreseeable future, which enables Russia to postpone reforms. But Watzlawek says "the president himself is a risk factor for Russia's development." The author predicts that "things will go well in the near future, but in the long run, a controlled democracy and a market that is continually bullied is bound to weaken. Only an order that protects the individual from the state's arbitrariness can ensure the development of market forces."

It would be naive to expect Putin to create a democracy according to European standards. However, Watzlawek says he must mend his ways. A first step in the right direction would be a declaration that he will not stand for a third term. Otherwise, a creeping autocracy will impede the dynamics required for the development of the economy and Putin will ultimately lose popularity. His power will guarantee stability, but will not ensure the well-being of the nation.


An item in France's "Le Figaro" says Russian voters are "disenchanted," which explains the low turnout yesterday for elections to the lower house of parliament, or Duma. Preliminary results of voter participation registered at around half of all eligible voters -- some 10 points below that registered in 1999.

This drop in political participation can, in part, be attributed to the little interest generated by the election campaign. "Administrative resources" dominated the campaign scene and drowned out voices from the opposition. Reduced to addressing voters at restricted times and prevented from thoroughly explaining their positions, the opposition was limited to representing its platform without ever debating it with the pro-Kremlin forces.

Russians -- long political cynics and thus not deceived -- have been citing their well-know proverb, often attributed to Josef Stalin: the results don't depend on how one votes, but on the way in which the votes are counted.


Belgium's "Le Soir" says that, unsurprisingly, the party that stands behind Russian President Vladimir Putin was the big winner in yesterday's elections to the Duma. With nearly 40 percent of the vote, the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party now dominates the lower house of parliament. Along with the expected support of two other Duma parties, "Le Soir" says the Kremlin is firmly in control of the legislature.

The Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) came in behind the second-place Communists (12.7 percent) with 11.8 percent, while the Motherland bloc won 9 percent.

"Le Soir" notes that, combined, Unified Russia, the LDPR, and Motherland make up 60 percent of parliament -- enough representation to initiate changes to the constitution.


Writing in "The Washington Times," Jeffrey Kuhner discusses the victory of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) party in recent national elections. The nationalist HDZ "benefited significantly from widespread voter frustration" with the "stagnant" former regime. Kuhner describes HDZ head Ivo Sanader as a "pragmatic technocrat" who claims a pro-European orientation and a commitment to "Western-style conservatism."

But Kuhner says if the newly elected Sanader "is serious about leading a conservative revolution in the Balkans, he must start an immediate, sweeping decommunization. The massive public bureaucracy, dominated by former apparatchiks who oppose economic reform, must be dismantled. A legal framework is needed to protect private property rights and the rule of law, and encourage entrepreneurship."

But most importantly, Sanader "must vigorously campaign against corruption." The Croatian Parliament must make it illegal "for public officials to engage in bribery, kickbacks, or have cronies and family members receive government contracts -- practices common not only in Croatia but throughout the region."

The issue over cooperating with The Hague war crimes tribunal is also a major obstacle. "Brussels has made it clear Zagreb's entry into the EU hinges upon unconditional cooperation with [the] tribunal," particularly regarding the 2001 indictment of General Ante Gotovina.

Sanader has pledged full cooperation, but Kuhner says a decision to hand over Gotovina "would be the end of his ruling center-right coalition. Gotovina is rightly viewed as a hero by most Croats for his role in leading a 1995 military operation that ended the Croat-Serb war. Extradition of the general would spark mass protests and civil unrest."

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)