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Russia Report: December 6, 2007

Five Myths About The Elections

By Robert Coalson

Soldiers line up at a polling station in Balashikha, a town outside Moscow

December 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- There is an "election" going on in Russia. Not an election, but an "election." This is not an election that falls short of international standards. It is not a democratic, a flawed democratic, or even a pseudo-democratic process. According to a recent RFE/RL poll, nearly two-thirds of voting-age Russians don't believe the elections will be conducted honestly. Nearly half say if they do vote, it will be out of a sense of "duty."

The Kremlin, regardless, is expending considerable effort to create the illusion of a democratic process, with the Kremlin-controlled election agencies, the Kremlin-controlled legislature, and the Kremlin-controlled media, which constantly intones the mantra that Russia is following its own democratic path, that the country has a reliable democratic system. "We don't need helpers in organizing elections like in Africa or Kosovo," a Central Election Commission member said in October. "We have an established democratic system."

Here are five myths the Kremlin's political spin machine has been working nonstop to promote.

1) President Vladimir Putin is popular. Polls consistently show Putin with a popularity rating of 60 to 70 percent. But these polls are part of an antidemocratic system, one where conformist political messages are drummed into the populace constantly while high-profile examples of the consequences of dissent -- from dispossession to exile to murder -- are frequently reinforced. No other political figures in Russia have even minimal name recognition, and even people who regularly appear on state television to sycophantically praise the leader are not known to the public by name.

"Popularity" in Russia is something the Kremlin gives and takes away. Six days after the largely unknown Viktor Zubkov was named prime minister in September, a poll found that 40 percent of Russians thought he'd be the next president of Russia. Because Putin is the only political figure with any significant stature in Russia, he attracts personal credit for everything that happens in the country, all of which is positively spun in the state-controlled media. However, the presidential administration understands how quickly setbacks can erode even Putin's support, as it learned in 2001 when Putin was lambasted for failing to show sympathy for the trapped crew of the "Kursk" nuclear submarine and in 2005 when pensioners took to the streets in the thousands calling for Putin's resignation because of a controversial social-benefits reform.

Putin's popularity ratings are a bubble that exist within a political vacuum, a bubble that nonetheless needs to be continuously pumped up with injections of hot air from state television.

2) Parties matter. Putin and his team have worked hard over the last seven years to bring the political-party system under control, and they have succeeded. Although there was some evidence the plan was to create a system based on two Kremlin-friendly parties, the Kremlin's commitment to that idea was never solid. Now it appears Soviet-era political impulses have taken over and the efficiency of a single-party monolith has proven too attractive.

There are 11 parties participating in the current campaign, but only one counts. Propped up by Putin and more than two-thirds of Russia's regional leaders, plus thousands of mayors and other apparatchiks, the Unified Russia party has -- as it did in 2003 -- ignored the other parties and focused entirely on using its vast financial and administrative resources to persuade a cynical public that since there is no beating them, you'd best join them.

Since its creation, it has followed the direction of the presidential administration, which in turn has not even bothered to create the impression that it takes the party's opinions into consideration. Party leaders were stunned when Putin announced unexpectedly on October 1 that he would head Unified Russia’s list of candidates for the Duma elections.

As for the other parties, some -- the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, A Just Russia, and Civic Force -- are Kremlin-controlled pseudo-opposition groups designed to muddle the situation and siphon votes away from independent organizations. The real opposition parties are financially starved groups that must spend all their resources merely in order to comply with the strict laws on forming and registering parties; that are shut out of the national media; and that are harassed, ridiculed, and parodied by Kremlin-inspired pseudo-NGOs.

3) Issues matter. The platform of Unified Russia's campaign is a collection of Putin speeches nebulously called "Putin's Plan," and it is not discussing any issues more sophisticated than the slogan "Putin's Plan Is Russia's Victory."

As it did in 2003, Unified Russia has refused to participate in campaign debates with opposition parties. Nonetheless, because of the party's domination of state-television news coverage, 8 percent of Russians in a recent poll said they remembered seeing Unified Russia members in televised debates and 69 percent of Russians who said they watched the debates thought that Unified Russia performed well in them.

Although Unified Russia has turned the elections into a referendum on Putin and his course, observers know that "Putin's course" is whatever Putin and his inner circle deem expedient at the moment.

Policy pronouncements by the minor also-rans are ridiculed at best, and as a rule ignored. In addition, because the violations of election standards by the authorities, by Unified Russia, and by bespoke “nongovernmental” outfits like the militant Nashi youth group have been so frequent and so outrageous, opposition parties spend the lion's share of their time and effort cataloging and complaining about them. There is literally no time to discuss matters such as the creeping renationalization of the economy or the systematic dismantling of civil society.

4) Election rules matter. Any party advertisement that does not include a direct, literal appeal to vote is not considered part of the campaign and is not covered by campaign or campaign-finance laws, the Central Election Commission has ruled in connection with complaints about Unified Russia flooding the country with T-shirts, notebooks, backpacks, and bottles of vodka.

On the other hand, the Federal Security Service, the KGB successor organization charged primarily with preventing terrorism, is investigating a Communist Party leaflet that contains jokes about Unified Russia and Putin. Police in cities around the country have confiscated campaign materials of the Union of Rightist Forces on pretexts ranging from the need to test them for narcotics to the need to analyze their content for signs of extremism or hidden advertising.

Opposition activists have been questioned by police in their homes and detained without cause on the streets. Garry Kasparov, head of the opposition Other Russia coalition -- which can't even participate in the elections because the Kremlin refused to register it -- spent five days in detention for participating in an unsanctioned demonstration, while six more Other Russia activists were sentenced this week to six days in jail for allegedly resisting arrest. Ivan Bolshakov, a leading Yabloko youth activist and Duma candidate from Nizhny Novgorod, was arrested on November 20 in Moscow hours after filing a complaint against Putin with the Central Election Commission on charges stemming from a demonstration he attended in May. Yabloko activist Farid Babayev was shot dead in Daghestan following his criticism of the republican administration's manipulation of the election campaign.

Unified Russia has filed 11 cases against newspapers in the city of Saratov alone, having recently won a hefty decision against one cash-strapped paper. Neither Putin nor the vast majority of the nearly 70 Category A officials (federal ministers and regional heads) running for the Duma on the Unified Russia ticket is taking administrative leave during the campaign. The governor of Novosibirsk Oblast told journalists he can't leave his post because of upcoming events like "the celebration of the harvest, the 70th anniversary of the oblast, and the coming of winter."

5) Election results will reflect the public will. This myth is perhaps the most important from the Kremlin's point of view. Analysts in Russia and the West have argued Putin is seeking a landslide in the elections so he can -- under the cover of an apparent popular mandate -- affect some unspecified major overhaul to the state structure and/or the constitution. Those changes will likely institutionalize Putin's increasingly totalitarian political system by introducing further antidemocratic measures such as the elimination of the direct election of the president.

No one knows what those changes -- "Putin's Plan" -- will be. So no one can vote for them. But even if Russians did know what that plan is, a political system without alternatives cannot produce an endorsement of that plan. Fewer than one in five respondents in the RFE/RL poll believe the results of the vote will reflect the true will of the electorate.

The Russian legislative elections will produce a "landslide," but it will be no more meaningful than similar landslides that are produced in other controlled political systems, such as those in most Central Asian countries. Unified Russia's victory will be a victory for Putin and his circle. But it won't be anything more than that.

Voting For The 'Boss' On Election Day

By Chloe Arnold

Russians went to the polls across 11 timezones

ODINTSOVO, Russia; December 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Despite temperatures of minus-12 Celsius and thick snowfall, there was a festive atmosphere outside school No. 14 in central Odintsovo this morning.

Pop music blared out of speakers placed beside the large tricolor flag on the school roof, and children threw snowballs at each other in the yard.

Swarms of residents, all dressed in their Sunday best, made their way inside to vote in parliamentary elections, which President Vladimir Putin's Unified Russia party is expected to win easily.

This sleepy town, just outside Moscow, is mostly home to Muscovites who have sold their homes in the capital and moved outside the city for bigger apartments and cleaner air.

Fifty years ago, Odintsovo was a village with wooden huts and water wells at the end of each street. Today the huts have been replaced with multistory apartment blocks and one of the wells is now a drive-through McDonald's.

There is a definite feeling of affluence in this town of 150,000. Residents can shop at the Mary Poppins children's wear boutique, or eat out at a dozen or so restaurants, including the Noah's Arc, a wooden three-story affair with life-size giraffes on the roof.

Perhaps as a result, the majority of voters RFE/RL spoke to said they had voted for Putin's Unified Russia party.

"Well, of course I voted for the boss, who else should I vote for?" asked Sergei Sautkin, 77, a retired trolleybus driver. "I don't need any of those other [parties]. I know that the boss should always be the boss. I told everyone at home straight off that I would only be voting for the boss."

Elona Chernyavskaya, a 38-year-old actress, also voted for Unified Russia.

"It’s no secret -- I voted for Putin," she said. "And that's because we've got used to living under him. It's not just that we're used to him, we can see that we have prospects and so we want some sort of stability for the time being. Later on, we'll see."

Other Parties

Inside the school, voting was brisk. Natalia Volosatova, the head of polling station No. 1814, said that by midday, about 20 percent of the 2,700 local voters had cast their ballots.

RFE/RL saw no signs of ballot-rigging, though Sautkin, the retired trolleybus driver, did report that he had had some help filling in his ballot paper.

"I looked at the ballot paper, and I couldn't for the life of me find [Putin] at No. 1. It turns out that he was at No. 10. They said to me, 'Look, there he is at No. 10.’ And I said: 'What should I put there?' And they said: 'Whatever you want, a cross, a tick, whatever you feel like. That's all we need from you,'" Sautkin said.

But though the majority of voters in Odintsovo told RFE/RL they had voted for Unified Russia, some voted differently. They said they were angry that the result seemed to have been decided in advance. A man called Aleksandr, who didn't want to give his last name, said he had voted for A Just Russia, because he felt its policies were closer to the people.

"But it doesn’t matter what happens, Unified Russia will come out on top," he said. "What was the point in voting? Everything has already been decided. Everyone has known what the result is going to be for a long time. What was the point in asking us?"

Anna, a 22-year-old student, said she had voted for the nationalistic Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, even though she said it was unlikely to win any seats in parliament. "I don't like what [Putin is doing]. He says one thing, and then he does another," she said.

Polling stations close at 8 p.m. Moscow time and the first results are expected soon after. Nashi, a youth group funded by the Kremlin, has already announced victory for Unified Russia today and called for voters to take to the streets as soon as the polls closed to celebrate.

It's thought they called the rallies to counteract any demonstrations opposition parties might have planned to protest the vote.

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

By Robert Coalson

Vladimir Putin, dining with his wife after voting on December 2, will head a party with enough seats to change the constitution

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."

Beyond 2008: Will These Elections Be Russia's Last?

By Brian Whitmore

In Putin's televised address, he again warned that Russia must 'ensure continuity'

November 30, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The past two months in Russia have been marked by a carefully choreographed Putin mania.

Kremlin-orchestrated rallies have proclaimed him the "national leader." A fawning televised film by Oscar-winning director Nikita Mikhalkov sang the president's praises on his birthday. An open letter from a group of politically connected luminaries, including Mikhalkov, implored Putin to stay in power. Billboards proclaiming "Putin's Plan -- Russia's Future" have sprung up like mushrooms across the country.

The tsunami of agitprop is part of a tightly controlled campaign to assure that the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, with Putin as its top candidate, wins an overwhelming majority in Sunday's parliamentary elections. Putin has warned that his opponents are plotting to return Russia to the "times of humiliation, dependence, and disintegration" that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union.

"The results of the State Duma elections will certainly set the tone for the election of a new Russian president," Putin said in a nationally televised address on November 29. "In fact, the country is now entering a period of full renewal of supreme legislative and executive authority. And in this situation, it is especially important for us to ensure continuity in its [political] course."

What Putin left unsaid -- but clearly implied -- was that continuing the current political course means keeping him and his allies at Russia's helm one way or another for the foreseeable future.

It is still uncertain exactly how Putin plans to continue to dominate Russian politics after his second presidential term ends next year. But few, if any, seriously expect him to leave the scene.

Beyond The 2008 Question

Solving the 2008 riddle of how to keep Putin in power is just one part of his team's long-term political agenda. Their more important goal, analysts say, is the establishment of a new and enduring political system that disposes of the troublesome, unpredictable presidential transitions -- and the democratic elections that produce them -- once and for all.

"They have been working on different alternatives for this big transition for a long time," says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, director of the Center for Elite Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Sociology.

In Sunday's State Duma elections the Kremlin is seeking to secure a two-thirds majority for Unified Russia, which would allow it to initiate constitutional changes. That, however, would be just the first step in an opaque process that analysts say will eventually result in an even more authoritarian and centrally controlled regime. Speaking to reporters last month, Putin himself seemed to confirm this, saying that Russia would need a strong hand guiding its political system and economy for another 10-15 years.

But in hanging on to power, Kryshtanovskaya and other analysts say that Putin is determined not to turn himself into an international pariah on the order of Belarus's authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

"By all appearances, Putin wants to be seen as a respectable leader," Kryshtanovskaya says. "He doesn't want to be excluded from the world community. It is important for him to be legitimate."

And there are various ways of achieving legitimacy -- or the appearance thereof.

Squaring The Succession Circle

Putin has said that he would consider a large majority for Unified Russia to be a mandate for him to continue to play a decisive political role after his presidency ends.

"The event coming up on December 2 requires a new description, something other than an 'election,'" wrote Andrei Lipsky, political editor of the "Novaya gazeta" newspaper. "Unsurprisingly, the language-sensitive functionaries of Unified Russia have started referring to it as a referendum."

Given the wave of propaganda that has washed over Russia in recent months, and the administrative resources at the Kremlin's disposal, it is a referendum that they are sure to win.

But the question remains: then what?

Pro-Putin fliers to be distributed by the youth group Nashi

Putin has repeatedly stressed that he would neither violate nor amend the constitution in order to seek a third consecutive term as president. At the same time, he has made it abundantly clear that he intends to remain a key player -- if not the key player -- in Russian politics for the foreseeable future.

"There is no alternative to Vladimir Vladimirovich. The constitution requires that a formal head of state has to be elected, and it must be complied with. But in practice there is nobody to replace Putin," Vitaly Ivanov, vice president of the Russian Center for Political Trends, wrote in the daily "Izvestiya."

In attempting to assure that nobody does, Putin's allies have floated various scenarios for keeping him in power.

When Putin announced in October that he would lead Unified Russia's party list, he also said he would consider serving as prime minister in the future. This fired up a wave of speculation that Putin was going to keep power as a sort of super-powerful premier -- which would become the epicenter of political power while the presidency became largely ceremonial.

Putin, however, publicly dismissed that possibility just weeks after he floated it -- saying he did not wish to change the balance of power between the president and premier.

Another possibility circulating in Moscow's frantic and chatty rumor mill has been the so-called "technical president" scenario. Since the constitution only forbids more than two consecutive terms, some Kremlin-watchers have long speculated that a trusted ally -- like Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov or St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko -- could serve as president for a brief period, allowing Putin to return to office after a respectable interval without violating the letter of the law.

Analysts have pointed out, however, that such a strategy has risks. What happens, for example, if the "technical president" starts acting like the real thing?

Moreover, such a scenario would be a short-term solution. And the recent signs indicate that the Putin elite wants to go for broke.

One-Party Rule

As election season draws closer, informed Kremlin-watchers are increasingly saying that Putin and his inner circle are considering a wholesale overhaul of the political system after Sunday's Duma elections.

In a commentary published in "Izvestiya," Vyacheslav Nikonov, president of the pro-Kremlin Politika think tank, wrote that after the elections Putin is considering becoming both head of Unified Russia and speaker of the State Duma.

"Backed by [a two-thirds] majority, and using his indisputably authoritative image, Putin would be able to transform the legislative branch into a powerful independent center of power," Nikonov wrote. "This would be especially effective if combined with control over the party which a substantial proportion of Russia's elite, including regional leaders, have already joined."

Kryshtanovskaya says Kremlin strategists have been "working on the Unified Russia scenario for a long time," painstakingly creating a vast network of party organizations stretching down from Moscow to cities, towns, and villages throughout Russia's vast regions and republics.

"So much money was spent and so much strength was used to create this huge network of party organization down to the very lowest level. It looks very much like the Communist Party of the Soviet Union," Kryshtanovskaya says.

She adds that the party's network will allow Putin and his circle to firmly establish a new system of one-party rule after the elections.

"Unified Russia will simply win the elections with a two-thirds constitutional majority in parliament and [continue to enjoy] a majority in the regional parliaments," Kryshtanovskaya said. "This would allow them to control the president, the prime minister, the governors, and practically everybody. All power will be with the party and everybody will be subject to party discipline. And the high council of the party will be like the Soviet politburo."

And Putin would become something akin to the Soviet-era general secretary -- the real ruler of the country.

If that is indeed the plan -- and the situation remains as fluid as ever -- it would entail major constitutional changes. But with a new commanding majority in the Duma, and with approximately two-thirds of the seats in regional legislatures, such an overhaul would not be difficult.

Fear of Chaos

Russia has been down this road many times before.

From the turmoil of the Time of Troubles in the early 17th century, to the chaos that followed the fall of the Romanov dynasty in 1917, to the free-for-all that ensued after the Soviet breakup in the 1990s, Russian history has been marked by long periods of autocracy punctuated by short intervals of turmoil.

The experience, says Edward Keenan, a professor of Russian history at Harvard University, has led many Russians to conclude that the only alternative to a firm authoritarian order is complete anarchy.

"The avoidance of chaos is deep in that political system. And the expectation on which that is founded, I think, is that any price is worth paying to avoid chaos," Keenan says. "People don't really want to leap into the unknown. They have been there. It's happened before, over and over again. The post-Gorbachev period, the Yeltsin period, is a period not only of chaos, but of enormous anxiety about the future for all the people who lived through it."

This, he says, explains why such a large percentage of Russians want Putin to remain in power even if that means sacrificing democracy and hard-won civil liberties.

But is authoritarian rule really the only tonic for a society with a deep-seated fear of chaos? Steven Pifer, a Russia expert formerly with the U.S. State Department who is now a senior adviser to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says Putin could have established a very different --and more democratic -- kind of political system when he came to power.

"I'm not sure it had to be this way. Putin could have taken a different course seven years ago and there could have been a more normal transition," says Pifer. "And he could have done quite a bit in terms of what he wanted to do in terms of political stabilization. I don't think he needed to walk as far back on democracy. He could have left a system behind that was capable of a smooth transition without the drama that we are now seeing."

Nashi Celebrates Victory; Public Steers Clear

By Chloe Arnold

Nashi activists celebrate the election results in front of the Kremlin

MOSCOW, December 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) --About 5,000 members of the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi gathered at Vasilievsky Spusk beneath Red Square in Moscow this morning to celebrate the landslide victory claimed by the Unified Russia party and President Vladimir Putin, who was running as its top candidate.

With ballots from nearly 98 percent of precincts counted, Unified Russia has won 64.1 percent of the vote, with the Communist Party in second place with 11.6 percent. The outcome all but assures that President Putin will continue to dominate Russian politics.

Nashi activists, celebrating the results, marched across the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge toward the Kremlin, gripping flags and chanting "Putin! Russia!" Dressed in identical red capes emblazoned with the president’s face and the words "We won’t give Russia to traitors," the Nashi activists looked like a zealous mechanized army bearing down on the capital.

Once they reached the tip of Red Square, they were marshaled into orderly lines by hundreds of organizers wearing white versions of the same capes. Then they marched through a line of metal detectors and were directed to stand in front of a stage, where a senior Nashi figure was extolling the president’s many virtues.

The Nashi (Ours) movement, which is funded by the Kremlin, has snowballed in recent months in the run-up to the December 3 parliamentary elections and the presidential vote next spring. It has been compared to the Komsomol, the youth league of the Communist Party during the Soviet era, organizing concerts, summer camps, and fun days out, but with an underlying message that members must dedicate themselves to Unified Russia, and to Putin.

Many of the participants in today's Nashi rallies came from far outside Moscow. Aleksei, who had traveled overnight on a bus from Uglich in Yaroslavl Oblast, said he had come to celebrate Putin’s victory -- though at 17 he was too young to have voted himself. He told RFE/RL he wasn’t sure whether today’s rally was similar to events staged by the Komsomol in the Soviet Union.

“I haven’t a clue -- I wasn’t alive in the Soviet Union. I haven’t even seen it on television,” he said.

Pavel, a 22-year-old law student from Tambov, was also unsure. “Yes, it does feel a little bit similar," he said. "In some ways that’s good, but in other ways it’s bad -- because they’re almost the same.”

But Maksim, a seasoned member of Nashi, said there was no question that the rally resembled anything from the Soviet era, because he was certain everyone had come with the same aim.

“I’ve come here to support Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and to be happy for his victory," Maksim said. "I’ve come to express my opinion as a citizen that we need to continue on the course of stability, a course that should make young people aware of what they are doing. Because it is the youth of Russia who are responsible for our country’s future. Everything lies in our hands -- the future of Nashi, and the future of our children.”

Though as many as 5,000 young people joined the rally, ordinary Muscovites steered clear. Dozens of Interior Ministry troops brought in for the occasion were only allowing caped members of Nashi and journalists into the cordoned-off area at the bottom of Red Square.

As the rally drew to a close, the man on the stage indicated a dozen cardboard cartons painted red to look like post boxes. He urged the crowd to post the handwritten letters each of them clutched in their hands to their leader. “He’ll be disappointed if he doesn’t read that you are part of his team! It will be a great shame if you are left on the sidelines!” the speaker said.

As he left the stage, a rap song written especially for Nashi was blasted through the speakers. “People of Russia," it went, "let’s face the future with all our might! The Nashi movement will spread goodness and light across the land!”

An hour after they had begun, most of the young people were marched back to their buses on the other side of the bridge. A few managed to slip away and headed further into town to spend the afternoon looking around a capital city they don’t get to see very often.

But for all the back-slapping they had received at the rally, most Muscovites gave them a wide berth. On one metro car a group of 12 Nashi supporters in matching red anoraks appeared to be regarded with a mixture of bemusement, embarrassment, and pity.

Moscow Plays Its Cards Well At OSCE Madrid Meeting

By Jean-Christophe Peuch
VIENNA, December 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) annual ministerial council on November 29-30 was the scene of open confrontation between the United States and Russia.

Though Russia was criticized for its dispute with the OSCE's main election-monitoring body and forced to compromise on Kazakhstan's OSCE chairmanship bid, Moscow nonetheless emerged unscathed from the meeting in Madrid.

The disagreements meant that the talks concluded without a final declaration, and the OSCE's outgoing chairman-in-office, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, closed the meeting with a simple political statement.

Ministerial declarations are politically binding blueprints that set the organization's priorities for the incoming chairman-in-office. But because of the political squabbles, there hasn't been such a declaration since the 2002 ministerial council in Porto.

But envoys of the OSCE's 56 participating states did decide on 10 issues, including one on increasing the organization's support for Afghanistan's border security and management.

Compromise On Kazakhstan

Ministers also agreed to grant Kazakhstan the OSCE chairmanship in 2010, with Greece taking the chair in 2009 and Lithuania in 2011.

Kazakhstan had applied to lead the organization in 2009, but that bid left the OSCE participating states profoundly divided. A decision on that issue should have been reached at last year's Brussels ministerial council, but was postponed to give Astana more time to demonstrate its commitment to human rights and democratic values.

Although Kazakhstan has made no noticeable progress in those regards -- even going backward in the view of many observers -- Washington and other critics eventually lifted their objections and agreed on a Spanish-sponsored compromise to give Kazakhstan the chairmanship in 2010.

The decision was finalized only two hours before the ministerial council's closing session and after much negotiating between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns.

Reaching consensus on Kazakhstan's bid was of critical importance for the OSCE.

Russia had warned that if Astana's bid to chair the organization was not granted -- and without conditions -- Moscow would block any decision on the OSCE's 2009, 2010, and 2011 chairmanships. That would have left the organization without a troika when Finland takes the helm on January 1, 2008.

The troika is one of the OSCE's main institutions. It consists of the chairman-in-office, its predecessor, and its successor. The troika makes political decisions for the OSCE.

The fact that Kazakhstan will lead the OSCE only in 2010 -- and not a year earlier, as the Kremlin initially insisted -- has been interpreted by some commentators as a setback for Russia.

Moscow's daily "Kommersant" on December 1 described the Madrid ministerial council as "one of the greatest fiascos Russia has endured in years."

The daily noted that in addition to defeating Kazakhstan's 2009 chairmanship bid, the United States and other Western nations overturned Russia's proposals to overhaul the OSCE's Office for Human Rights and Democratic Institutions (ODIHR) and criticized Moscow for its decision to freeze its commitments under the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty.

Moscow's Plans For ODIHR

Arguably, Russia may have lost a battle. But it has definitely not lost the war.

First, Moscow has long been seeking to boost the OSCE's role in political-military issues to counterbalance NATO's influence. Bearing that in mind, the future of the CFE was debated at length in Madrid, and that in itself is an achievement for Russia.

Second, Kazakhstan's gaining of the OSCE chair in 2010 still fits into Moscow's longer-term plans regarding the organization.

Russian representatives had brought with them a draft proposal that recommended that the functioning of the ODIHR -- which is the OSCE's main election-monitoring body -- be strictly regulated and supervised by participating states. Under existing procedures, ODIHR does not report to the Permanent Council -- the OSCE's main decision-making body, in which all participating states have an equal voice -- but to the chairman-in-office.

The United States, which ranks among ODIHR's strongest supporters, has criticized the Russian plan as an attempt to undermine the independence and effectiveness of what Undersecretary of State Burns described as "the world's premier organization for election monitoring."

Addressing reporters ahead of the Madrid meeting, Burns warned that Washington "will not give one millimeter of opening to any proposal that will weaken ODIHR.... It's just not possible at this ministerial [council] or any time in the future."

Burns's views were supported by other western participants, including French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who on November 29 called upon participants to "preserve ODIHR's autonomy."

Addressing the media at the close of the Madrid ministerial, Kazakh Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin said his country would see that OSCE institutions are strengthened when it takes the helm of the organization. He also said that Astana will not back any initiative that aims to weaken ODIHR's mandate to monitor elections.

The pledge could be viewed as a token response to Burns's earlier warning that "any country that wishes to be a chairman-in-office of the OSCE must commit itself to preserve the institutions of the OSCE." Yet, it does not contradict Russia's vision of how the organization should operate.

Russia denies that its plan -- which has been endorsed by Kazakhstan and another five CIS states (Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) -- aims to weaken ODIHR.

Lavrov said in Madrid that ODIHR's mandate "is already weak enough. It has been completely watered down. We want to strengthen it and we're going to tackle that."

An OSCE Charter

Russia's ODIHR reform plan is part of a more ambitious scheme whose objective, according to its authors, is to restore the balance between the OSCE's human-rights "basket" and the organization's other two dimensions: political-military affairs and economic and environmental issues.

Moscow insists that the OSCE must adopt a charter that regulates the activities of all its institutions, shifts its priorities on security issues, and establishes overall budget transparency. Russia has accused the United States and other Western countries of using OSCE field missions as political instruments to meddle in the internal affairs of post-Soviet states by providing them with unlimited and uncontrolled extrabudgetary funds.

Washington opposes Moscow's reform plan. "A charter won't help the OSCE do its job better than it does today," Gary D. Robbins, who heads the U.S. State Department's Office for European Security and Political Affairs, said in Vienna on November 8.

Addressing his OSCE counterparts on November 29, Lavrov suggested that experts start working on a draft charter to be put to the vote at next year's ministerial council in Helsinki. But his proposal was rejected.

Moscow, in turn, blocked two draft decisions on effective participation and representation in democratic societies and on strengthening the OSCE's engagement with human-rights defenders and independent, national human-rights institutions.

It also vetoed a draft decision of the "Convention on the international legal personality, legal capacity, privileges, and immunity of the OSCE." Speaking on behalf of the European Union at the end of the ministerial council, Portugal's representative regretted that this text, which he said "would give the OSCE the recognition of a fully-fledged international organization," was not approved.

Lavrov made it clear in his address to the ministerial council that Russia will not back the Legal Personality Convention until its own proposal for a new OSCE charter is adopted.

Russia also toppled another draft, which should have been included in the final ministerial declaration and had been proposed by Moldova and Georgia. It demanded that Russia withdraw all its troops, military equipment, and ammunition stockpiles from Moldova's separatist region of Transdniester and provide documented evidence that it has vacated the Gudauta military base in Georgia's breakaway province of Abkhazia.

Russia, which claims it has fulfilled its military commitments to Moldova and Georgia, has been blocking such a declaration for the past five years.