Putin and 'United Russia' Portrait of a Reluctant Democracy

Russians go to the polls on Sunday. The dominant party, United Russia, enjoys moderate support, but its leaders expect nothing short of a resounding victory. SPIEGEL presents five regional snapshots of a nation with eleven time zones, pinning its hopes on one man -- Vladimir Putin.

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Vladimir Putin hopes to stay in power beyond official term limits by leading his party to a huge win on December 2.

Vladimir Putin hopes to stay in power beyond official term limits by leading his party to a huge win on December 2.

It's a five-minute walk from the Kremlin's Spassky Gate across Red Square to the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament. The elected representatives of the Russian people meet in a boxy-looking, sand-colored building in the heart of Moscow. The tricolor of the new Russia, flying on the roof, looks tiny and tentative compared with the massive building and its carved image of a hammer and sickle on a garland of wheat -- a holdover from Soviet days.

One enters the building through oak doors with bronze handles as thick as forearms. Granite columns line the stairway leading up to a room called the "Small Ballroom." There, behind a wall paneled in marble and graced with the Russian double eagle, sits Boris Gryzlov.

Gryzlov is something like the lord of the manor. He's a tall, gray-haired man, chairman of both the Duma and the United Russia Party. This makes Gryzlov the chief mediator between the parliament and the power that dominates it. More importantly, though, he's the gatekeeper to the true center of power in Russia -- President Vladimir Putin.

With the infallible instinct of a Storm Petrel, Gryzlov, a loyal Putin supporter, has been testing the winds coming from the Kremlin for years. In doing so, he forces his flock of followers into the appropriate formations. The Russian parliament, he says rather defensively, is "not a place for political battles," but rather for the serious work of governing. According to Gryzlov's definition of government, his party's parliamentary group is what Lenin called the "trumpet division" or "auxiliary arm" of his party.

Roughly 100 parliamentarians from United Russia are sitting on cream-colored folding chairs to attend this morning's briefing. The speaker is Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the Kremlin administration and President Putin's domestic political advisor. He spends 40 minutes giving the representatives of the party he invented what amounts to a pep rally for the last phase of the parliamentary election campaign.

On Dec. 2, Russians will vote on the new composition of the Duma, which represents the 141 million Russian citizens who live in the the world's largest nation as measured by land mass, spanning eleven time zones.

United Russia aims to double its share of the vote in this election. The party, founded in 2001, emerged as the winner in the 2003 election when it captured 37.6 percent of votes. With its 1.7 million members, the pro-Kremlin party is now confident that it can win the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to amend the constitution.

But Putin's envoy Surkov has come to the briefing to warn the assembled members of parliament. According to opinion polls, United Russia could garner a smaller-than-expected percentage of the vote. Getting out the vote won't do the party any good, because many, especially younger voters, have no intention of voting in this election. And yet nothing less is on the line than the president's reputation. By formally campaigning as United Russia's leading candidate, Vladimir Putin has turned the Duma election into a referendum on his almost eight years in office -- and, in doing so, he has practically downgraded the presidential election slated for March 2, 2008 to a formality.

All obstacles to success for the powers that be on Dec. 2 have been removed -- except the will of Russian voters. For the first time, the vote will be based purely on proportional representation, while direct mandates for independent candidates have been eliminated. Under new election rules, political parties must capture at least seven percent of the vote and have at least 50,000 members to qualify for seats in the Duma.

Voters across the continent (click to enlarge).

Voters across the continent (click to enlarge).

The preferred option for voters opposed to all parties in Russia -- placing an x in a box marked "opposed to all" -- has been eliminated. So has a law stipulating a minimum election turnout.

In March, Vladimir Churov, a former Putin subordinate in St. Petersburg, was appointed Chairman of the Central Election Commission. When the bearded atmospheric physicist began his new position, he stated publicly that he planned to abide by what he called "Law Number One: Putin is always right."

Churov was quick to dismiss the notion that a prankster had inadvertently been promoted to the position of arbiter of free and fair elections in Russia in the year 2007. Parties that criticized Putin during the campaign would be stricken from the election rolls, he said, and added with a bland smile, as if he were in charge of a home for juvenile delinquents: "These parties are like our own children. We have taken great pains with them."

Deputy Kremlin Chief of Staff Surkov is unquestionably the man who has taken the greatest pains. Just as a scientist can artificially produce something in a Petri dish that would never have developed naturally, Surkov has cultivated parties in his Kremlin laboratory over the years for which there was money, but no real agenda. Under Russian election law, at least two parties must be represented in the parliament.

If United Russia emerges victorious from the election, as planned, Fair Russia, a party led by Sergei Mironov, will perform the role of second fiddle. Mironov, the chairman of the upper house of parliament, has repeatedly spoken out in favor of a constitutional amendment that would allow Putin to serve a third term in office. The Communists, as nostalgic as they are unthreatening, will likely return to parliament, despite their graying clientele. The so-called Liberal Democrats, led by the boisterous populist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, are tolerated by the powers that be because they pose little threat in their position along the right fringe of the political spectrum.

The Kremlin's strategists are supposedly seeking to develop a two-party system based on the US model. The core message they are disseminating to voters during the campaign is packaged in the solicitous claims that too many parties can only irritate the voting public. But the days of heated debates between liberals and leftists in the Duma, and of communists conspiring with patriotic nationalists to depose former President Boris Yeltsin, are long gone.

'A Farce'

One of the last of the politicians from the pre-Putin era who have managed to survive in the Duma to this day is Vladimir Ryzhkov, 41. He's been a member of parliament for 14 years. Ryzhkov now seems relaxed among his fellow parliamentarians, casually dressed in a turtleneck sweater and sports jacket, observing the goings-on around him. After Sunday's election, Ryzhkov will not return to office.

His Republican Party was dissolved in May by the Russian Supreme Court, allegedly because it had failed to meet new minimum party membership criteria. When Ryzhkov tried to launch a candidacy as a member of the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) -- a liberal pro-business party -- he received threats from pro-Kremlin activists.

The situation in Russia today, says the outgoing parliamentarian, reminds him of the "controlled multiparty system in (Communist) East Germany." The fact that voters will go to the polls on Dec. 2 will not bring about significant change, says Ryzhkov. "This is not an election, it's a farce."


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