Putin Clings to Power Kremlin Favors Manipulation as Election Strategy
The Kremlin-backed United Russia party is getting ready for the final phase of campaigning ahead of December's parliamentary election. But allegations of manipulation are likely to overshadow Friday's party convention. Critics accuse Vladimir Putin of stifling democracy to ensure he and his cronies stay in power.
When the Kremlin explains democracy to children, it paints a rosy picture of a well-functioning system. "It's a good thing that people with different opinions point out the mistakes made by the government," the website kids.kremlin.ru reads. The site explains to young Russians why a "healthy, democratic country" needs an opposition.
But the same message doesn't apply to the adults who make up the country's roughly 110 million eligible voters.
Twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and more than a decade after Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin, chose former KGB officer Vladimir Putin to be his successor, the great power is a sham democracy where political parties have turned into puppets of the Kremlin.
Nowhere is this more readily apparent than at the conventions of Putin's party, United Russia. Delegates waving little flags, balloons and large screens depicting the speakers are reminiscent of an election campaign in the United States, but the spirit of the events is more evocative of the Soviet Union and its Communist Party. But today, instead of infirm general secretaries, the man standing at the microphone is an energetic Vladimir Putin, who tells the saga of Russia's resurgence.
This Friday, it will be showtime again. United Russia will stage its next convention, marking the beginning of its campaign season for the parliamentary election in December and the presidential election in March 2012. The event is attracting more attention than usual this time because it will not only feature appearances by Putin, the prime minister and party chairman, but also by current President Dmitry Medvedev, the darling of the West and the man who had awakened hopes of a liberalization of Russia when he came into office. But the heightened media buzz over the event is also the result of a scandal that sent shockwaves through political circles in Moscow last week.
It was triggered by oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, who, with an estimated net worth of 13 billion ($17.7 billion), is Russia's third-richest man. In late June, the Kremlin had dispatched the politically inexperienced entrepreneur on a hunt for voters. He was installed as leader of the economically liberal Right Cause party with the goal of recruiting floating pro-Western voters and dissuading them from joining the non-parliamentary opposition.
But the project got out of control, and last week the Kremlin strategists removed the oligarch once again. He had pursued an overly independent course and placed individuals on his party list who are not tolerated in Moscow.
Prokhorov was too outspoken for the taste of Putin and his colleagues. He announced publicly that Right Cause was a "Kremlin project" and demanded the resignation of its chief ideologue, Vladislav Surkov, a close associate of Putin who is said to be the third-most powerful man in the country. Prokhorov described Surkov as a "puppet master who long ago privatized the political system." Of course, there was no mention of this fundamental criticism on the state-run television news.
Instead of being granted the meeting he requested with the government leadership to explain his position, Prokhorov was showered with malicious remarks from the Kremlin, which accused him of having become "hysterical."
Diverting the Public's Attention
In the wake of the scandal, Right Cause will probably not even clear the 7 percent threshold required to enter the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament. This would be only too convenient for Putin and his supporters because it could mean that the Duma could then shrink into a three-party parliament at the end of the year. It would then consist only of United Russia, the Communists and right-wing populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia.
Eleven weeks before the election, it is already clear that, once again, Russia will see an election campaign that doesn't deserve the name. The only things that are open about the "open competition" President Medvedev has called for are the blouses of the so-called "Medvedev Girls" and the young women in the "Putin Army" -- two groups that are using scantily clad women to campaign for their respective candidates.
In a macho country like Russia, this not only attracts attention, but also diverts the public's attention away from the fact that there are no longer any political debates. The decision as to whether Medvedev will be allowed to remain president or whether Putin will run again is also being made behind closed doors. The prime minister, Russia's real leader, will have the final say on the matter. Political observers hope that the United Russia convention this week will at least offer a hint as to which of the two politicians will be the next president.
- Part 1: Kremlin Favors Manipulation as Election Strategy
- Part 2: The Fewer Elections, the Better