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General elections in Russia, 7th December 2003

General elections in Russia, 7th December 2003

14/12/2003 - Analysis

On 1st October last an opinion poll by Romir revealed that one Russian in two (51%) believed that Russia is not a democratic State and that two thirds of the country's inhabitants (69%) do not believe that a change in power will occur via free and just elections. It is within this context that for the fourth time since the fall of the Soviet Union Russians have been called to vote on 7th December in order to choose their representatives in the Douma, the Lower Chamber of Parliament.

As the general elections approach, political analysts point to the lack of competition between the political parties and the feeble motivation on the part of the electorate. Politicians are particularly worried both about the high abstention rate that has been forecast by the opinion polls and the danger of a massive vote for "against all candidates", a choice that features on the voting slips whereby the voter can express his simple rejection of all the candidates standing in the election. The low participation rate recorded on 6th October last during the election of Valentina Matvienko as governor of St Petersburg (28,25%) was a warning shot for the political authorities and also a warning about the upcoming general election on 7th December. The Minister for Emergencies and Natural Disasters, Sergueï Choïgou, leader of the party, Russia Unity, even suggested recently to deprive Russians of their citizenship if they did not go to vote for three elections running.

The Russian Political System

The Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation comprises two Chambers: the Council of the Federation and the Douma. The Douma comprises 450 members elected for a period of four years according to a mixed voting method. 225 MP's are elected at the uninominal election within territorial constituencies and 225 are elected according to a vote by list. In the latter case all of Russia comprises one single electoral constituency, with the votes attributed to political parties accumulated on a countrywide scale. A minimum of 5% is necessary to be represented in the Douma. Twenty three parties were recorded and will take part in the general elections on 7th December next.

Fourteen political parties are represented at present in the Douma, the main ones being:

Unity, a majority party that supports President Vladimir Putin and led by the Minister for Emergencies and Natural Disasters, Sergueï Choïgou ;

Mother Country - All of Russia (OVR), led by Iouri Loujkov ;

Communist Party (PCFR), a party led by Guennadi Ziouganov, who is struggling to portray a credible political alternative;

Union of Rightwing Forces (SPS), a party led by Anatoli Tchoubaïs ;

Iabloko, which means Apple, a party led by Grigori Iavlinski ;

Liberal Democrat Party (LDPR), led by Vladimir Jirinovski.

The Council of the Federation comprises 178 members i.e. two representatives from the legislative and executive body for each of the 89 entities that make up the Russian Federation (21 republics, 6 territories, 49 regions, one autonomous region, 10 autonomous districts and two Federal towns). The members of the Council of the Federation were appointed in July 2000. Russia is divided into 7 federal constituencies (Centre, North-West, South, Volga Basin, Urals, Siberia and Far East) each of them being led by a plenipotentiary representative of the President of the Republic.

The Electoral Campaign

As soon as the electoral campaign started several parties (the Communist Party and Iabloko) denounced the disregard of the pact of good electoral conduct, accusing the media, in particular, of being in the hands of the government and of not respecting political plurality. "With the President" - this is the slogan and totality of the Russia Unity programme (Edinaïa Russia), led by the Minister for Emergencies and Natural Disasters, Sergueï Choïgou. "We do not want a single line of thought, a political monopoly, the State Party - we see ourselves in rallying the majority to settle the country's problems. We are different but we are with the President", declared Home Minister Boris Gryzlov. For his part Vladimir Putin wanted a "clean, transparent campaign" with the election being an opportunity "to fight out political opinions and programmes and not a chance to reveal compromising situations". The previous general elections on 19th December 1999 were preceded by a campaign whereby the different parties confronted each other with « kompromaty », i.e. embarrassing documents (files, telephone tapping or video cassettes) that were of doubtful authenticity.

On 3rd September, when the electoral campaign for the general elections was launched, a new law came into force applicable to the media, thereby reducing the freedom of journalists. This law forbids "the description of possible events if a candidate is elected or not", to talk about a candidate's activities apart from the ones linked to his profession, banning "all activities" by journalists that might influence the electorate's choice. After two successive infringements a media can be submitted to a fine and then suspended until the end of the campaign on request of the electoral committee. As the general elections have drawn closer all of the national or private TV channels have been placed under the control of groups that are close to the Kremlin (the last independent general TV channel, TVS, was closed on 22nd June this year). Finally in September the State decided to place the main opinion polling institute under its control - this had been led since 1988 by Iouri Levada, a famous sociologist, who at the end of the '60's was removed from the only centre for sociology in the Soviet Union.

Guennadi Ziouganov, the Communist Party leader (PCFR), has already accused the Kremlin's party "Russia Unity" of preparing to rig ballots and has already qualified the general elections on 7th December as being "dirty swindlers" elections. The Communist leader is travelling around the provinces presenting his electoral programme that is focussed on themes such as employment and retirement, State control of Energy, transport and natural resources (land, forests etc) which according to the PC belong to the people and cannot be private property. Guennadi Ziouganov has accused the reform movement of having "destroyed" the Soviet Union "in order to take over the country's natural resources". In his speeches he makes no bones about praising Stalin "who built nine thousand factories in ten years whilst the post Soviet reform movement destroyed 19,000 companies after the fall of the USSR".

Two of the other major opposition parties, the liberal parties - the Union of Rightwing Forces (SPS) and Iabloko, for their part, demonstrated in the centre of Moscow on 7th November, the Day of Entente and Reconciliation (bank holiday in Russia) that they renamed "the Day of the Defence of Freedom and Democracy". In a public declaration around fifteen intellectuals and civil society representatives requested both liberal parties to join together to defend democratic values that are threatened by Vladimir Putin in their opinion. "The scission of democratic Russian society, the confrontation between Iabloko and the Union of Rightwing Forces has proven sterile in the past. Today this sterility might turn into a catastrophe. (...) A common enemy is approaching; yesterday's enemies must become allies", stresses the text that is signed, amongst others, by writers such as Vladimir Voïnovitch and Boris Akounine, the dramatist Alexandre Guelman and the former ambassador for Russia in France, Iouri Ryjov. The two liberal parties still have not managed to come to an agreement to date.

According to the latest opinion poll undertaken by the Vtsiom-A institute, published on 17th November last, the presidential party Russia Unity is in the lead of intentions to vote, winning 29% versus 23% for the Communist Party. Both parties were, according to the same polling institute, neck and neck in the October polls (26% each one). The Liberal Democrat Party (LDPR) is in third position with 8% of the intention to vote (5% in October), followed by the liberal parties, Iabloko and the Union of Rightwing Forces each with 6%.

The Ioukos Affair: a new stage in the fight between the Siloviki and the Oligarchs

In the early hours of 25th October billionaire Mikhaïl Khodorkovski, head of IoukosSibneft, the world's fourth group in the oil industry, was arrested and placed in detention until 30th December next. The billionaire (his fortune is estimated at 8 billion dollars by the American magazine Forbes) is accused of tax evasion and large scale fraud, accusations for which he risks of 10 years imprisonment. This arrest that came in the middle of the electoral campaign is not an innocent affair. Indeed the billionaire made no secret of his political ambitions and seemed quite able to set himself up as rival to the Presidency one day or another.

Mikhaïl Khodorkovski, who is forty years old, took part in the Komsomols (Communist Youth) before launching into business. Until a few weeks ago this man, who as a teenager declared that he wanted to become "director of one of the biggest factories in the Soviet Union", was at the head of Ioukos, a group valued at 50 billion dollars that was privatised in the mid 1990's. It employs 200,000 employees, and produces 2.3 million barrels of oil per day and represents 20% of Russia total production and 3% of its GDP. The head of Ioukos recently published his fortune and the structure of his companies aiming to promote transparency within Russian society. Mikhaïl Khodorkovski, who had been Deputy Minister for Oil and Energy in 1993 under Boris Yeltsin, is also the founder of Open Russia (Otkrytaïa Russia), a non-governmental organisation dedicated to educating youth with the support of civil society activities.

Nine days after his arrest, Mikhaïl Khodorkovski announced his resignation from the function of director and said that he wanted to continue his work as president of the ONG Open Russia. "Above all I must safeguard the Ioukos team from the attacks made on myself and my partners. I am withdrawing from the company. My projects lie in continuing my task as head of Open Russia in order to build an open and truly democratic society within Russia. I shall dedicate all my strength to my country, Russia, because I firmly believe in its great future", he maintained. Simon Kukes, member of the Ioukos board of directors and former head of the Russian oil company TNK, was appointed as his successor.

The arrest of the billionaire came after the exile of Vladimir Goussinski, a media tycoon, who was the first to be prosecuted for fraud and forced into exile in July 2000 in exchange for the transfer of his possessions at Gazprom, a company close to the government led by Boris Berezovski, a colleague of Boris Yeltsin, and former deputy secretary of the Russian Security Council. Berezovski was also a media tycoon and was accused of theft and fraud, and was also obliged to abandon most of his fortune before leaving Russia. Nevertheless although Vladimir Goussinski and Boris Berezovski might be considered as Vladimir Putin's enemies (Goussinski supported a centre left coalition during the general elections on 19th December 2000 and Berezovski created Liberal Russia in 2002 in opposition to Vladimir Putin), this is not the case with Mikhaïl Khodorkovski, even though he was recently involved in politics as he financed the Union of Rightwing Forces and Iabloko, parties opposed to Vladimir Putin. The arrest of the oil tycoon also came just after the imprisonment on 2nd July of Platon Lebedev, Ioukos's number two and head of the holding Menatep that also belongs to Mikhaïl Khodorkovski. The former is accused of embezzling 283 million dollars worth of State shares in 1994 and of ousting two Ioukos shareholders, including the former company manager Vladimir Doubov, from one of the Russia Unity lists in the upcoming general elections.

As soon as his mandate started Vladimir Putin announced: in his opinion the oligarchs must cease to exist; the President went as far as saying that he wanted to "get rid of the oligarchs from all classes". The Russian leader believes that the country can only be governed with an firm, authoritarian hand, "the dictatorship of the law", according to his own words, with the obligation of imposing himself on the country. Since his rise to power on 26th March 2000 there have been numerous breaches in the freedom of the media (in September, and for the very first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, a journalist was condemned to one year in prison for slander; Guerman Galkine, who is also a member of Liberal Russia, a party that is opposed to Vladimir Putin's policies, had written a series of articles criticising two deputy governors). The impossibility of expressing any opinion on the war in Chechnya other than that held by the government and the disappearance of developing opposition forces are proof of the regime's authoritarian nature. Under Vladimir Putin governors have been deprived of their seat in the Council of the Federation as well as their power and their revenues. At the end of last year the economic adviser to the President, Andreï Illarionov, said that the oligarchs "comprised the greatest threat to society", heralding the launch of the government's campaign to control primary materials and with it the fight to control the world of business and money that is won by the owners of Russia's immense natural riches.

The arrest of Mikhaïl Khodorkovski is proof of the ruling elite's revival, a sign of victory for those we usually call the Siloviki (strongmen), characters who emerge from the "armed" administration such as the police, the army and the secret services. The Siloviki are against the Oligarchs, the businessmen who built their empires during the privatisations under Boris Yeltsin and who control the country's main riches. Although the Oligarchs fear regression and Russia slipping gradually towards being a Police State the Siloviki believe that the country's riches have been sold off and that it is high time for the State to take up its true place. When Vladimir Putin came to power he promised not to question privatisation - he also maintained that the Oligarchs "had to learn to respect the law and pay their taxes". In an attempt to reassure international financiers he recently announced a new opening of the capital held by the giant Gazprom - a company that is the object of everyone's desire.

The arrest of Mikhaïl Khodorkovski did not pass without raising numerous reactions including those amongst close colleagues of Vladimir Putin. As a result, as early as 31st October, Prime Minister Mikhaïl Kassianov did not hesitate in expressing his concern: "I am very worried. The freezing of the shares of a quoted company is a new phenomena, the consequences of which are difficult to evaluate, it is a new type of pressure", he declared. Likewise Alexandre Volochine, head of the presidential administration and considered the leader of the Oligarchs, resigned from his position to be replaced immediately by Dimitrii Medvedev someone close to Vladimir Putin.

Countries in the West preferred not to react to the arrest of Mikhaïl Khodorkovski. Javier Solana, the High Representative for Foreign Policy and Security in Europe, said that this was "a matter of Russia's domestic politics", the European Commissioner for Enlargement, Günter Verheugen, pointed out that "direct investments in Russia would only be possible in a stable, safe situation".

Mikhaïl Khodorkovski's arrest affected the population only slightly since they often judge the Oligarchs severely, accusing them of stealing natural riches from the people and the State. According to a recent survey undertaken by Romir and published on 5th November, 54% of the population see the billionaire's imprisonment as a positive thing and two thirds think that the accusations are founded. The survey also mentions that a quarter of those interviewed did not even know about the billionaire's arrest. Another survey recently revealed that 8 in 10 Russians were in favour of questioning privatisation by which Oligarchs such as Mikhaïl Khodorkovski managed to enrich themselves. Not only did the Ioukos affair not damage the popularity that Vladimir Putin enjoys, on the contrary he found his position was strengthened: 73% of Russians approve of their President's action; half of the population (53%) say that he is the politician in whom they are most confident. The Master of the Kremlin can then take on the general elections on 7th December in total serenity.

Reminder of the general election results on 19th December 1999:

Participation: 61.85%

Source: Russia and other countries of the CIS 2001-2002, Le Courrier des Pays de l'Est n° 1 030, November-December 2002, Paris, La Documentation française, 2003
Publishing Director: Pascale JOANNIN
The authors
Corinne Deloy
Author of the European Elections Monitor (EEM) for the Robert Schuman Foundation and project manager at the Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po).
Fondation Robert Schuman
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