Vladimir Superman Putin Riding the Cronies to Victory

Vladimir Putin's United Russia party swept to a landslide victory on Sunday. The result is hardly surprising given the amount of power and control the president has. But what happens next?
Almost 65 percent of Russian voters cast their ballots for President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party.

Almost 65 percent of Russian voters cast their ballots for President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party.

Foto: REUTERS

It was to be a sportsmanlike affair, the president promised. He wanted to come out on top of an "honest fight," Vladimir Putin told the delegates of his party United Russia on Oct. 1. The applause was long and loud, and then the party chose Putin as its lead candidate for the parliamentary elections. Two weeks later, Putin was granted three hours of face time on both state-run television channels -- the other candidates were nowhere to be seen.

The TV spot masqueraded as an opportunity for citizens to call in and ask questions directly of the head of state. But in the provinces, Putin supporters took off their gloves: Putin-appointed governors ordered their deputies to make sure the election results were to the liking of the Kremlin. In companies, universities and army barracks, bosses pressured their underlings to "vote correctly." As if that weren't enough, opposition politician Garry Kasparov was arrested and imprisoned for five days shortly before Russians went to the polls.

Not surprisingly, Putin got the results he wanted. With 98 percent of the precincts reporting, United Russia scored a landslide victory with 64.1 percent of the vote. The pro-Kremlin party Just Russia received 7.6 percent and the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, likewise supporters of Putin, scored 8.2 percent -- meaning that the Putin camp came away with roughly 80 percent support on Sunday.

Even the Opposition Is Loyal

Opposition parties meanwhile failed miserably. Yabloko and SPS, both liberal parties, hardly managed to win more than 1 percent of the vote and will not send representatives to the Duma, Russia's parliament. Indeed, the only halfway independent party to make it over the 7 percent hurdle -- the result parties have to achieve to be able to send representatives to the Duma -- were the Communists. But even they have often shown themselves to be loyal to Putin, particularly when it comes to foreign policy.

The vote for Putin was particularly strong in Chechnya and Ingushetia. The voter turnout of 99 and 98 percent respectively points to a revival of Soviet manipulation practices. No one in Russia believes that Putin and his party are more popular in impoverished villages in the Caucasus plagued by rampant unemployment.

Indeed, many seem to think that the Kremlin may have overdone things. It's not just the opposition that is unimpressed. Discomfort with the election is evident in wide swaths of Russian society, even including Russian security forces. The overwhelming majority of Russians, one survey puts it at 69 percent, suspected even before the election that the results would be manipulated. In a survey by Moscow's Levada Institute, 94 percent of those polled said they had "absolutely no influence" on politics in their country.

Disdain for the West

At the same time the polls show that around a third of Russians think the Soviet system was better than Western democracy. The poverty and chaos that characterized much of the 1990s led to severe skepticism of political plurality in the country. Many were humiliated by the way US-friendly politicians allowed the country to be at the mercy of the International Monetary Fund.

Western-supported chaos on Russia's borders, particularly in Ukraine and Georgia, has led many to further question foreign advice. When Putin points to Bush's unhappy Baghdad expedition and announces that Russians don't need "democracy like in Iraq," he can be sure of their resounding approval.

But the Russian disdain for the West conceals a homemade dilemma. United Russia, which hardly has any active local chapters, was only able to mobilize a fraction of its 1.7 million members. There have been reports that regional party organizations have used massive amounts of state money and administrative staff to compensate for the weaknesses of the "party of the powerful."

United Russia has therefore degenerated -- now more than ever -- into an instrument for regional leaders. Sunday's election result is above all a carte blanche for bureaucrats at every level. Putin admitted during the campaign that "all kinds of crooks" were hitching their carts to the party now celebrating an unprecedented triumph in Russia.

'Putin Was Always Right'

The party saw its best returns in places where United Russia is headed by questionable figures accused of corruption and cronyism -- or with images shrouded by banditry and crime, as in Chechnya. Putin's express wish a few days before the election -- that the victory should be "overwhelming" -- could only have been understood by unscrupulous provincial leaders as a request for the maximum possible result for United Russia, by any means necessary.

Putin laid the conditions for this victory in a deliberate and orderly way. He knew what he was doing when he named Vladimir Churov chair of the Central Election Commission last March. Churov is a parliamentarian from Vladimir Zhirinovsky's populist right-wing Liberal Democratic party. But the man had long made it known that "the first law of Churov" was that "Putin was always right."

At a demonstration in St. Petersburg, two years ago, Churov lauded a book called Ruhnama ("The Book of the Soul") by the now-deceased dictator of Turkmenistan, Turkmenbashi, who was by all accounts a paranoid despot. Churov praised the work as "warm and clear, like the autumn sun of Turkmenistan." The Russian election-chief-to-be said it would be "useful for many countries and people to have a book like Ruhnama." Putin could be sure that a man like Churov could organize appropriate election results for United Russia.

Imaginary Life

The current system of power in Russia was once described in careful detail by a German writer. The life of public institutions, in her analysis, had become "an imaginary life, in which bureaucracies alone became the active element." Now and then "demonstrations were organized to let crowds of people applaud speeches by the leader, and approve certain resolutions with a single voice -- in other words, in principle, a clique system." Rosa Luxembourg wrote that in 1918, observing the fragile German government after World War I.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian bureaucracies had to gradually reinvent themselves. Putin became their protector, his public campaign against "corrupt bureaucrats" notwithstanding. What that really meant is demonstrated by the fact that after eight years of Putin's presidency, not one of the thousands of bureaucrats in the Kremlin has been charged with corruption -- although many pursue murky business deals. Even in Russian intelligence agencies, a suggestive cliché has gained currency -- "the fish rots from the head."

The Duma elections, essentially a plebiscite for Putin, have strengthened a party which, despite tight grip on power, is only a pale reflection of the all-powerful Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Something that the Russian dissident Andrei Amalrik wrote in 1969 about the Soviet bureaucracy also applies to the composition of United Russia. According to Amalrik, a kind of negative selection process took place in the bureaucratic elite: the brave and the independent were forced out, to the benefit of the weak and indecisive. A good example of the current breed of top officials is provided by the Duma speaker and United Russia leader Boris Gryzlov, an obedient follower of orders who lacks any ideas of his own. It remains a mystery how exactly Putin intends to achieve his promised breakthrough to an innovative high-tech economy with such staff.

Such a system of power can only expect limited loyalty, even from those responsible for state security. In addition, Putin's power base consists of a very small group of officials, of which a large part used to work in the St. Petersburg city administration and were active members of the same dacha association as Putin. Even in Soviet times, such a narrowing of the power base was unthinkable.

Merciless Power Struggles

Not even Stalin would have surrounded himself mainly with old comrades from his home in the Caucasus. Putin's system is hence much more vulnerable than the Soviet system ever was during its heyday. Despite Putin's overwhelming popularity, rival clans are preparing themselves for merciless power struggles.

Shortly before the election, a deputy finance minister was detained amid accusations that he had embezzled $43 million. Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, a Putin confidant, intervened on behalf of the detainee and proclaimed him innocent. The head of the drug control agency, Viktor Cherkesov, has been missing one of his generals for the last two months -- he is in detention awaiting trial. Cherkesov, a Putin associate from their KGB times, claims the arrested general is the victim of a set-up. The domestic secret service FSB organized the arrests in both cases.

Right up to the night of the election, Putin remained mum about the office he would like to take after his election victory. His term as president will end in May 2008 -- and uncertainty is already growing. Those with political clout surrounding Putin have already begun a no-holds-barred fight for power, money and influence. Moscow's corrupt elite are nervous.

Powerhungry clans, completely unfettered by inhibition, are triggering dangerous quarrels. Reason and a willingness to compromise are two attributes lacking among Moscow's powerful.

In that sense, the "stability" and "continuation of the political course" that Putin's propagandists have been boasting about could be lost before the snow on the Kremlin roof has a chance to thaw.

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