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Micromanaged Democracy: Russia's Ruling Party Schools Candidates On Campaigning

Russia's ruling United Russia party is closely associated with President Vladimir Putin and members running for upcoming parliamentary elections have been urged to emphasize the "lawlessness" of the 1990s in their campaigns, something the Kremlin leader supposedly ended when he came to power in 2000.

Elections for Russia's State Duma, as well as a large number of local contests, are scheduled for September. And the ruling United Russia party wants to make sure its candidates are prepared for any awkward encounters with voters or journalists.

The party has created a largely closed section on its website with videos instructing potential candidates how to talk about prickly issues like the long reign of President Vladimir Putin, the confrontation with the West, and the difficult economic situation.

The videos can only be viewed by registered users who state they plan to participate in the elections, but the RBK news agency on February 2 published a report on their content.

According to RBK, on the subject of Putin, United Russia candidates are supposed to emphasize the "lawlessness" of the 1990s, which the party says was overcome after Putin was elected president in 2000. Russia at that time was "not only on its knees, but on the edge of the abyss," the party-approved narrative goes.

Secondly, candidates should emphasize that "there are no other leaders in the country."

As for the anti-Putin opposition, the party takes the predictable line that "the United States wants to take over the world with the aid of 'Orange Revolutions' and now has Russia in its sights." It warns candidates to be wary of attempts by the opposition to foment separatism, especially in the Caucasus, Siberia, and the Far East.

A video stating that Russia "is the world champion of freedom of speech," is hosted by Dmitry Kiselyov, head of the state media conglomerate Rossia Segodnya. He says that "obstacles to journalism and public speech as a means of self-expression are what led Ukraine to the state it is in now."

Ukraine is struggling to overcome economic problems and interference by Russia, which seized Crimea in 2014 and backs separatists who control parts of two eastern provinces.

'Mistakes Of Bureaucrats'

As for talking about the economy, the United Russia videos give little advice but generally support the recommendations of Sergei Glazyev, a leftist economic adviser to Putin. RBK asked United Russia Duma deputy Vyacheslav Nikonov about the lack of instruction and he said the party has not yet developed its economic platform.

When confronted with specific questions about top leaders and "the mistakes of bureaucrats" -- most of whom would likely be from the ranks of the party, which dominates Russia's political environment at all levels -- would-be candidates are urged to insist that they are running for office "partly in order to get rid of such ballast."

In another swipe at the 1990s, Duma deputy Irina Yarovaya urges candidates to tell voters that "during the time when there were elements of sinister competition in the parliament, when the times were most difficult for the country, at those times, our party was not yet there."

According to RBK, more than 11,000 people have registered to access the site.

Elections in Russia are highly managed and noncompetitive, and the liberal opposition has been pushed to the margins since Putin came to power. But United Russia seeks to attract as many votes as possible, both to score points with Putin and to minimize the extent of manipulation needed to achieve the Kremlin's aims.

Following regional balloting in September 2014, a journalist with the daily Kommersant, Maria Karnaukh, wrote that elections held "in all of the country's 84 regions resulted in victory for the United Russia party…. [I]n the race for governors' seats, the ruling party candidates scored an average of 77.2 percent."

United Russia currently controls 238 of the 450 seats in the Duma, Russia's lower parliament house, with all the others held by three nominal opposition parties that routinely vote with United Russia.

The party also holds 2,840 of 3,787 seats in the country's regional legislatures. Almost all of Russia's regional governors are United Russia members and, in most cases, head the party's regional sections.

The party's chairman is Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.