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Western Press Review: Russian Elections A Vote For 'Authoritarianism' At Home, 'Assertiveness' Abroad

Prague, 9 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Press commentary today focuses exclusively on the 7 December parliamentary elections in Russia.


Britain's "Financial Times" looks at Russian President Vladimir Putin's victory and perceives a sprouting authoritarianism. It says in an editorial: "For Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, Sunday's parliamentary election was a triumph. But for the cause of political freedom in Russia it was a serious defeat. The forces of authoritarianism marshaled by the Kremlin have pushed further into territory once occupied by democracy."

The editorial says: "As independent monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe pointed out, the authorities corrupted the election through their control over the administrative machine and the media. In the process they have created the most loyal, and the most nationalist, parliament since the end of communism."

The newspaper says: "Mr. Putin is now most unlikely to face serious challengers in next spring's presidential elections. He can consolidate his power and try to change the constitution to allow him a third term from 2008. He could use his enhanced authority to pursue much-needed political and economic reforms. But with the liberals out of the Duma he will face less pressure to speed up economic liberalization."


Similarly, "The Daily Telegraph" reads the election results and, in an editorial, forecasts a hardening of Putin's program of consolidating his own power and centralizing the state. It says, "The result of Russia's parliamentary election is a vote for conservatism."

The editorial continues: "How will that conservatism translate into policy, both domestic and foreign? At home, it will harden the president's determination to create a centralized state that does not tolerate independent centers of power, whether in Chechnya or among tycoons such as Mikhail Khodorkovskii, the former head of the oil giant Yukos, who was arrested in October on charges of tax evasion and fraud."

The newspaper says: "In the president's eyes, Russia's route to great power status lies through managed democracy. For the purpose of winning elections, that means the loan of state resources, and the backing of the state-owned media, for the favored candidates. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe yesterday described this practice as having produced an 'overwhelmingly distorted' outcome to Sunday's poll."


"The Wall Street Journal Europe" carries a commentary by Geoffrey T. Smith, Dow Jones Newswire's Moscow bureau chief. Smith says the election results "add up to an invitation to Mr. Putin to take Russia in the direction of authoritarianism at home and assertiveness abroad, particularly as regards its relations with the U.S. and former Soviet republics."

If Putin accepts this invitation, Smith writes, "He cannot hope to escape outside condemnation. He already has felt the sting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe [OSCE], which said the weekend's elections 'did not meet international standards.' Yet the OSCE was spot-on when it termed the elections 'a regression in the democratization of this country.'"

The writer says: "If Mr. Putin wants to take Russia in the direction of dictatorship -- or, as fashionable jargon has it, toward 'managed democracy' -- the Duma could speed him on his way. If he wants to take Russia in the direction of liberal democracy, it is less likely to cooperate."

Smith concludes, "Overall, it is a bleak election result for the West and Russia, with bad means justifying uncertain ends."


"The Independent" headlines its editorial: "Russia's Ballot Was Free But It Was Far from Fair." The newspaper says, "The Russian parliamentary elections held on Sunday were a model of procedural correctness, compared with elections in several other parts of the world, and -- for that -- the Russian authorities deserve credit." But the newspaper notes that there is more to democratic elections than accurate electoral rolls, the smooth running of polling stations and a mostly honest and well-organized count.

"As the Council of Europe and OSCE observers trenchantly concluded yesterday," "The Independent" says, "Russia's parliamentary elections may have been free but they were far from fair."


"The Times" of London says in an editorial, "Russia's election shows a country with iron in its soul." It says, "Russia likes the idea of being a puzzle within a riddle wrapped in an enigma, but the results of its weekend parliamentary elections were abundantly clear."

The editorial continues, "Mr. Putin's centralizing tendency is well known and described either as authoritative, by his admirers, or as authoritarian, by his detractors." And it says, "Fundamentally, this [new parliament is] designed for rubber-stamping Kremlin decisions."

The newspaper says: "Most Russians apparently do not object to the outcome. Many, indeed, are keen for tougher political control. Their experience of democracy and the free market has left many unhappy with the distribution of the state spoils."

It concludes, "The authoritarian sentiment exposed by the elections may shock the West: but, unfortunately, it springs straight from Russia's grass roots."


Dan McLoughlin of "The Irish Times" says in a commentary from Moscow that the Russian people have bestowed nearly absolute political power upon Putin. He writes: "And with almost unbridled power comes the possibility of constitutional change. Some analysts are wondering if Mr. Putin will accept a 2008 limit on his presidency, or rather use his massive control to alter the fundamentals of a system constructed by [former President Boris] Yeltsin, the man who ushered him into the Kremlin in 1999."


In the United States, "The Christian Science Monitor" editorializes, "Russia now has a pseudo-democracy to go along with its pseudo-capitalism."

The editorial says: "The elections were hardly fair: Mr. Putin pulled out all the stops to ensure [Unified] Russia's win. Opposition parties faced legal and administrative harassment."

The newspaper continues, "State-controlled television broadcast news that was blatantly biased in favor of the party [allied with Putin]." It says, "In his most popular move, Putin played the Yukos card, arresting the oil company's billionaire president, Mikhail Khodorkovskii, and breaking up a merger deal with rival Sibneft."

The editorial adds: "Optimists say the wildly popular Putin could use his increased political strength to push through the free-market economic reforms Russia so desperately needs. But given Russia's history, pessimists -- including Russia's real democrats -- worry that the country is drifting back toward czarist-style authoritarian rule."


In an editorial, the "Los Angeles Times" says Russia has taken a backward step. It says: "Don't believe President Vladimir V. Putin's claim that Russia's parliamentary elections brought democracy closer. The balloting Sunday represented a lamentable step back toward authoritarian rule."

The editorial continues: "Putin's allies in the State Duma, led by the [Unified] Russia party, appear set to gain a two-thirds majority. Putin will almost certainly win election to a second four-year term in March, given the absence of meaningful opposition. More ominously, he might have the support to change the constitution and run for a third term if he so wishes."

It says: "Putin has given his rule the trappings of democracy by allowing opposition parties to criticize his government and by not interfering directly with elections. But the government's seizure of private television networks meant United Russia's message was heard above all others."


Under the headline, "Mr. Putin's Parliament," "The Washington Post" predicts in an editorial that Putin has embarked on a path to immense power in Russia. The newspaper says: "Mr. Putin has choked the media, brought provincial governments under Moscow's control and eliminated private businessmen as a source of independent power. [Now] he has succeeded in installing a large parliamentary majority made up of his own [Unified] Russia party and two extreme nationalist groups also under the Kremlin's control. Two liberal parties that were the last vestiges of Mr. Yeltsin's pro-Western reformism were wiped out, apparently failing to obtain the minimum vote needed for seats in the Duma.

"These results were both the product and the culmination of Mr. Putin's policies; they consolidated what a delegation from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe called a 'regression in the democratization of this country.' Where will Mr. Putin go now with his reorganized state?"

The editorial replies to its own question: "Many expect him to concentrate on strengthening the Russian economy through state-directed capitalism. The nationalists whom he has just helped to elect will demand that he step up his effort to reassert Moscow's dominion over neighboring states such as Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, using both economic and military levers. He may remain willing to work with the Bush administration and European governments on issues of mutual interest, such as the war on terrorism or control of North Korea's nuclear program. But he will demand that the West accept his quasi-authoritarian 'protected democracy' and recognize a Russian sphere of influence in the space of the former Soviet Union, while preserving its privileged place in such institutions as the G-8 and NATO."

It says: "Though the United States will need to do business with Mr. Putin's government in coming years, its long-term interest lies in trying to revive the more liberal and democratic Russia that Mr. Putin has systematically suppressed. That means restoring and augmenting programs to foster and support an independent civil society and free media in Russia, programs that unwisely have been cut back in recent years."


A commentary in the Swiss "Neue Zuercher Zeitung" calls the Russian election results "Putin's 'controlled democracy,'" which has "good, middling and unsettling consequences."

On the positive side, there is the fact that these were the fourth parliamentary elections since the fall of 70 years of Soviet dictatorship, comprising to a certain extent the option of choosing among a set of pluralistic parties, and nobody was forced to go to the polls.

It says, secondly, this election "was a clear defeat for the Communist Party."

However, the editorial says, a negative is "the overwhelming triumph of President Vladimir Putin's supporters, assuring his re-election. This is not a hopeful prospect for the development of democracy in Russia, which will remain controlled."


The "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" says in an editorial that the election results raise troubling questions about who and what Russia is. The newspaper says: "Many in the West will have to pose the question of what sort of partner they are dealing with -- a partner who uses political parties for his power politics, who perceives a market economy as Kremlin capitalism and is interfering more than ever in geopolitical conflicts. Chechnya apart, if Putin is aiming for a Western policy, as he claims, then his understanding of the problems has little to do with Western concepts. His attitude adheres ever more to the traditional Russian great power policy."

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba assisted with this report.)