02/12/2007 - Analysis
On 5th September Vladimir Putin, President of the Federation of Russia, made his decision to hold general elections on 2nd December public. 107.2 million Russians (-600,000 less in comparison with the general elections that took place on 7th December 2003) are due to vote. 6,000 candidates are officially running in the election that in Russia usually serves as a dress rehearsal for the presidential election that takes place immediately afterwards (2nd March 2008). 11 political parties have been given permission to stand in the election. Three parties – the Greens (Z), the National Union and the Party for Peace and Unity – were refused permission because the signatures they presented were declared invalid. Although the Ecologist Party put forward 70,000 signatures, the Electoral Commission considered that this list contained too many false signatures. "We counted 12,089 invalid signatures, i.e. 17.27%," declared Electoral Commission manager, Maya Grichina. A maximum of 5% of false signatures is allowed in the support lists!
The Russian Political System
The Federal Assembly of the Federation of Russia comprises two Houses: the Federation Council, the Upper House, comprising 178 members and the State Duma, the Lower House, comprising 450 MPs elected for four years. The electoral law has been modified since the last general elections in December 2003. MPs are now elected by integral proportional representation using lists that may include up to 600 names each; this makes it possible to increase the number of well known personalities featured on the lists. In this way Vladimir Putin is on Unified Russia's electoral lists, a party he is not even a member of! If he is elected he will not sit in the Duma. Until 2003 although half of the members of the Duma were elected by proportional representation the other 225 were appointed in single-member plurality constituencies which sometimes made it possible for some independent MPs to be elected.
In 2007 Russia will comprise one single electoral constituency and votes attributed to political parties will be accumulated across the entire country. A minimum of 7% of the vote (5% in 2003) is now necessary for a party to be represented in the Duma. However the Constitution stipulates that at least two political parties must be represented there. As a result if just one party wins more than 7% of the vote, the party which comes second will enter the Duma whatever the percentage of votes it achieves. In addition to this any party that wins over 3% of the vote will be reimbursed for its campaign expenses.
Vladimir Putin justified the change in voting method saying there was a need for centralisation and unification in the country. This was also the reason he used to justify the repeal of the election of regional governors by universal suffrage. Since 2004 the latter have been appointed by the president!
The rules of the electoral game have also been changed for the political parties. Political groups that rally at least 50,000 members (10,000 previously) or a minimum of 500 members in at least 44 of the country's 49 regions can now be qualified as parties and therefore are able to run in the elections. "The parties have to represent a significant part of the population," indicated Galina Fokina, manager of the registration bureau for political parties. Parties that are not represented in the present Duma must also pay a deposit of 60 million roubles (2 million euro) or have 200,000 signatures – 10,000 of them cannot be from the same region or from Russians living abroad. MPs can now no longer leave their party without running the risk of losing their seat; finally there is an obligatory minimum participation threshold (50%) for the general elections to be declared valid, likewise the possibility of voting "against all the candidates" has also been abolished.
8 political parties are represented in the present Duma:
- Unified Russia, a majority party supporting Vladimir Putin, led by present Duma spokesperson and former Home Minister Boris Gryzlov. Created in December 2001 after the merger of three parties (Unity, Motherland and All Russia) the party rallies one million members, it has 223 MPs;
- the Communist Party (KPRF), founded in 1993 is led by Gennadiy Zuganov; the party has 180,000 members and 52 seats;
- Rodina (Motherland), a coalition rallying the Regions Party, the National Rebirth Party and the Unified Socialist Party; 37 seats;
- the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), a nationalist, populist party founded in 1989 led by Vladimir Jirinovski; 36 seats;
- the People's Party; 17 MPs;
- Yabloko (Apple), 4 seats;
- Union of Rightist Forces (SPS); 3 seats;
- the Agrarian Party (APR); 2 seats.
The Federation Council has 178 members i.e. 2 representatives of the legislative and executive power in each of the 89 units that make up the Federation of Russia (21 republics, 6 territories, 49 regions, 1 autonomous regions, 10 autonomous districts and two towns with federal status). Russia is divided into 7 federal constituencies (Centre, North-West, South, Volga Basin, Ural, Siberia and Far East), each being led by a plenipotentiary representative of the President.
One question remains: what does the future hold for Vladimir Putin?
"It is perfectly clear that President Vladimir Putin will leave his post in nearly one year's time and that a new President will take his place," maintained the deputy spokesperson of the Presidency of the Federation of Russia, Dmitri Peskov on 17th April last. Two months later Vladimir Putin said to the Figaro, "I do have an idea of what I shall do but I cannot talk about this. The time is not right. Everything will depend on the way political events occur at the end of this year and in 2008. There are several options." On 12th September he surprised everyone by appointing as Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov, former director of a sovkhoze and who since 2001 was the director of the Federal Department for Financial Surveillance in the fight against money laundering; he replaced Mikhail Fradkow in office since March 2004. Many political analysts were speculating about the appointment of Sergey Ivanov, former Defence Minister who was promoted to Deputy Prime Minister in February 2007 and also Dmitir Medvedev, also Deputy Prime Minister. The appointment of Viktor Zubkov, unknown to 85% of Russians bears a distinct resemblance to that of Vladimir Putin's appointment by his predecessor as Head of State, Boris Yeltsin in 1999. Viktor Zubkov, who is 66 years old was Vladimir Putin's deputy in the Committee for International Relations for the town of Saint-Petersburg which the President was head of at the time. On 14th September the Duma approved his appointment by 381 votes in favour 47 against and 8 abstentions.
The new Prime Minister placed the fight against the stimulation of the military-industrial network, symbolic of Russian power in the international arena (the defence budget increased by 30% under Vladimir Putin) and corruption at the top of his government's list of priorities. As director of the Federal Department for Financial Surveillance he was instrumental in having Russia removed from the black list of the Financial Action Group, an intergovernmental body that fights against money laundering even though deputy prosecutor Alexander Bouksman believes that overall annual income from corruption lay at 33.5 billion dollars in 2001 and 240 billion in 2006 i.e. the equivalent of the State budget over five years!
Vladimir Putin's strategy now seems clear to many analysts: since the Russian Constitution prohibits the Head of State from running for a third consecutive mandate, Viktor Zubkov will stand and be elected as President on 2nd March next, with Putin becoming his Prime Minister. Then Viktor Zubkow may leave his post before the end of his term in office in 2012 for health reasons for example, which would then enable a comeback by Vladimir Putin as Head of State. As interim President he might stand for the following presidential election and be quite legally set for another two terms in office.
When interviewed on 13th September about whether he might run for president on 2nd March next Viktor Zubkov answered: "If as Prime Minister I manage to achieve something of substance this might not be impossible." Everyone believes that the Prime Minister cannot imagine running for President without having Vladimir Putin's permission. "Leading a government is a perfectly realistic proposal but it is still too early to think of this. In order to do this a minimum of two criteria must be met: that Unified Russia wins the general elections on 2nd December next and elects an honest, competent, efficient, modest man as President with whom we can work together as a pair," indicated Vladimir Putin on 1st October. As for Viktor Zubkov in April he said, "I believe that the best choice for the post of Prime Minister after March 2008 is Vladimir Putin." The President in office excludes modifying the Russian Constitution so that he can stay in power whilst many are pushing him to do so. In order not to lose his credibility Vladimir Putin has therefore chosen another path, which remains a secret, to stay in power.
"It would be a serious mistake to think that everything has been settled: Vladimir Putin as Prime Minister, Viktor Zubkov as President followed by Viktor Zubkov's resignation and the return of Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin," warns the director of the Centre for Political Studies in Moscow, Serguey Markov. "He will stay in power. Wherever he might be the centre of power will be based around him because it will be his team in power," maintains political analyst Olga Kryshtanovskaya who in 2003 was the first to imagine a scenario in which Vladimir Putin would become Head of Government after the presidential election in 2008.
Vladimir Putin likes to compare himself with the 42nd American president, Franklin D Roosevelt (1932-1945), who was criticised in his time by his country's elites. "In the end his development plan benefited everyone and led the USA to take the position they now occupy in the world economy and politics. Russia needs this for 15 to 20 years still: after that it will be able to pass over to an automatic mode and become more liberal," indicates the Russian president who quotes the conversion of the rouble as an example of the Russia's progress towards becoming a more liberal economy. Recalling that under Boris Yeltsin political uprising led Russia into a dead end and he defends the political system he has established. "Just think that people would come to power and not agree with the country's development; it would be easy for them to overthrow [the current political system]; therefore it is important for Parliament to be effective."
Vladimir Putin has restored State and public order in a country that had never experienced democracy; many Russians believe Putin has given them back a certain amount of dignity after consecutive years of humiliation and impoverishment when the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of the 1980's. The president, who has an 80% positive opinion rate, also owes his popularity to the return of economic growth and political stability. However competition between the various political parties has significantly worsened over the last few years to a point where Vladimir Ryzhkov, MP and opponent of Vladimir Putin speaks of a "Dresden partisan system" so called after a regime in which, apart from the majority party, there are only puppet parties that are strictly controlled by the ruling power as was the case in the German Democratic Republic before 1989. "The other candidates do not appear on television, people feel that there is no other alternative," explains journalist Grigori Pasko.
"Around 55% of the Russians want Vladimir Putin to stay in power. But this is not an overwhelming majority. He is not a Fidel Castro, Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini-like demagogue. People are not worried about him becoming President for life, 51% of Russians say they hardly need elections which are the business of the authorities and not of simple people. They really do not understand how democracy works, are indifferent to programmes and support strong leaders," explains Lev Gudkov, director of the opinion institute Levada. A joke is going around Russia as follows: "Alexander Pushkin is our everything, Zurab Tsereteli is our everywhere and Vladimir Putin is our always". Only two men – Mikhail Gorbatchev and Boris Yeltsin left power in Russia of their own accord.
On 7th October last 10,000 members of Nashis (Ours), a youth movement supporting Putin marched through the streets of Moscow celebrating his 55th birthday. On the same day some Russians paid tribute to Anna Politkovskaia, a journalist assassinated a year earlier in Moscow.
The General Election Campaign
On 1st October last Vladimir Putin accepted to stand on the Unified Russia list, talking of the "essential upkeep of State stability and the continuity of political action," in justification of his presence. In a long televised speech at the end of October he promoted Russia's socio-economic results under his two terms in office as Head of State and notably the GDP growth rate of 7.7% (+1 point) maintaining that these good results did not only lie with the immense wealth of Russian natural resources (oil, gas, etc.) but 2/3 of the time other sectors had contributed such as construction, transport, communications, trade and investments. He mentioned the record level of the country's gold reserves (296 billion euro). He recalled that obligatory military service would drop from 18 to 12 months in January next.
Inflation that lay at 8.5% over the first ten months of the year in 2007 is still quite worrying however. On 24th October the government signed an agreement with food industry producers and distributors to freeze prices on some basic products the prices of which have risen considerably (+50% for bread). Although inflation is very much linked to how the economy is working (distribution and logistics problems), this type of agreement enables leaders to provide an image of effectiveness and real power since the population is often convinced that inflation like all of the country's economic problems are the result of a conspiracy and speculation on the part of producers and distributors. Vladimir Putin decided to raise military and retirement pensions as from 1st December next i.e. the day before the elections (Russia has 38.2 million pensioners).
Unified Russia the only political party allowed to advertise (!) chose as its electoral slogan 'Vladimir Putin's project is victory for Russia'. The ruling party repeats that there is no opposition in Russia, that popular movements are simply conspiracies conceived by the CIA or groups manipulated by foreign powers and the West which are trying to destabilise the country. Led by the Duma spokesperson and former Home Minister, Boris Gryzlov and by Emergency Minister Sergey Choïgou, Unified Russia can only perceive one real adversary: the Communist Party. "It is a party with a well established ideology and with its own electorate. Our greatest differences are ideological. They involve the country's development and we believe that the Communist Party programme is bad for Russia," maintains Oleg Morozov. Boris Gryzlov aims to win at least 60% of the vote on 2nd December next.
On 28th October 2006 a new party, Fair Russia (SR), was born of the merger between Rodina, led by Dimitri Rozoguine with the Pensioners' Party (PP) whose leader is the present president of the Federation Council Sergey Mironov and the Party for Life (PJ). This party which lies to the left of the political scale supports Vladimir Putin and hopes to become the country's second biggest party ahead of the Communist Party. It is however considered by many simply as Vladimir Putin's plaything, in the ilk of Rodina created by the Kremlin to destroy the Communist Party during the general elections in December 2003. Although it is supposed to be fighting for greater social justice in reality it is responsible for stabilising the protest vote.
On 11th March last Unified Russia won in the local elections that took place in 14 regions (30 million Russians i.e. 1/3 of the population were called to renew their regional and town councils) winning 44.05% of the vote and 60% of the seats, against 16.04% for the Communist Party 15.53% for Fair Russia and 9.62% for the Liberal Democrat Party. Six in ten voters did not turn out to vote.
"The Communist Party project is that of the people," is the slogan chosen by the Communist Party which as always stands as protector of the working class and the ardent defender of the role of the State in the economy.
The Liberal Democrat party has chosen to campaign under the slogan of "Return to the country". Agriculture, housing and roads comprise its three main priorities. "People have lived under various regimes, Communist for 70 years, Democratic for 20 years and Putin for the last eight. Today they realise that they need something else and that is the Liberal Democrat Party," maintains Vladimir Zhirinovsky. The populist leader is fighting for the reunification of the former Soviet republics and the practice of Russian in all former USSR countries. The party accepted Andrei Lugovoy onto its lists, a businessman who owns a private security company but who has been accused by the British of assassinating Alexander Litvinenko on 23rd November 2006 – Mr Litvinenko was an opponent of Vladimir Putin and had been living in London since 2006. The two men met on 1st November 2006 and drank tea together in London before Alexandre Litvinenko fell ill and died some weeks later from polonium 210 poisoning; the latter is a rare radioactive isotope. On his deathbed Litvinenko accused Putin of having organised his assassination. Last May the UK demanded the extradition of Andrei Lugovoy of the Russian authorities, but this request was rejected by the Russian legal system which said that the Russian Constitution did not include the option of extraditing Russians to other States. If he is elected to the Duma on 2nd December Andrei Lugovoy could then enjoy parliamentary immunity.
Former world chess champion Gary Kasparov is one of Vladimir Putin's most mediatised opponents. A member of 'The Other Russia', a party created in April 2006 and which includes extremely heteroclite members, Gary Kasparov will be the leading candidate on the list for the elections along with Viktor Gerashenko, former governor of the Russian Central Bank and writer Edward Limonov, leader of the National Bolshevik Bloc which has now been banned. Over the last few months 'The Other Russia' has organised a number of rallies against Vladimir Putin's policies; often the marches were prohibited. Gary Kasparov, who was arrested in Pushkin Square in Moscow has been accused of causing public disorder and of organising an illegal demonstration on 14th April last; he had to pay a fine of 1,000 roubles (29€). "If Vladimir Putin's regime stays in power the Russian State will collapse just like the Soviet Union because this type of government cannot withstand the test of modernity," indicates Gary Kasparov adding "do not try and apply western criteria to describe what is happening in Russia". Gary Kasparov started off in politics two years ago. "I have always wanted to defend my country's honour, I did so when playing chess, and I shall do so in the same way in politics. This is another game. One without rules."
'The Other Russia' won the support of Mikhail Kassianov, former Prime Minister (200-2004), to Boris Yeltsine and Vladimir Ryikov an independent MP and chairman of the Republican Party which was banned because it did not have enough members!
On 20th October the former Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev created a new party, the Social Democratic Union. "We are putting our hopes into what Vladimir Putin is doing," maintained the man who started perestroïka and glasnost who does however deplore "the restriction of scope for public politics and the lack of competition between political parties." The Social Democratic Union cannot however take part in the upcoming general elections since the deadline for registration was set for 17th October!
There is a row going on between Russia and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Vladimir Putin has just decided to receive a number of observers, much lower than during the elections of December 2003, in time for these general elections (1,200 monitored the electoral operations at the time including over 400 OSCE observers). The OSCE did however say then that the general elections had not taken place according to all the criteria of a democratic election! Vladimir Putin accuses the OSCE of "being biased" against Russia.
According to a poll by VTsIOM on 27th and 28th October last Unified Russia is due to take 52.7% of the vote (247 seats), the Communist Party 15.6% (82 seats), Fair Russia 9.3% (49 seats) and the Liberal Democratic Party 7.5% (40 seats). Only four parties will therefore be represented in the Duma.
Pollster Levada asked the following question: "What do you think about Unified Russia officially becoming the country's main political force in the ilk of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union with it being able to appoint people of its choice to positions of responsibility?" 49% said they were in favour of this. VTsIOM asked approximately the same question which reveals that 50% of Russians want a single party system. The youngest (18-24's) and the oldest (over 55's) are most in favour, the first because of indifference, the second because of nostalgia for the USSR.
"Only one thing is certain: the elections of December 2007 and the presidential of March 2008 in Russia will not be free, honest and truly pluralist elections," wrote Marie Mendras, director of research at the Centre of International Studies and Research (CERI) in April 2007. This opinion is largely shared by the Russians. "The message is clear," indicates political analyst Dmitri Oreshkin, "we cannot let Vladimir Putin go." The official campaign started on 3rd November.
Results of the General Elections – 7th December 2003 in Russia
Source: Electoral Commission of Russia
* This figures only include the results of the integral proportional election