The publication of the presidential decree on holding elections to the State Duma on December 2 formally opened the electoral season in Russia, which should culminate in the inauguration of a new president in mid-May next year (Rossiiskaya gazeta, September 5). So far, the public has paid little attention to the campaign, primarily because the parliamentary part of the political “drama” is even more tightly controlled by the Kremlin than it was in the 2003 elections. Those elections produced a parliament so entirely compliant with every political signal from the presidential administration that the whole concept of parliamentarism is deeply compromised, and the bureaucracy is seen as omnipotent (Gazeta.ru, August 1).
In Russia’s strictly unicentric political system, it is quite impossible to imagine that anybody other than the solidly popular President Vladimir Putin could hold the reins of power. He was catapulted into the Russian political arena in August 1999. (August is always the month for shocking events in the Russian political tradition, but this year it passed without any breaking news.) Putin continues to reign in splendid isolation, and the parties involved in the show of electoral competition are demonstrating loyalty rather than seeking to put forward prospective presidential hopefuls. This decidedly dull political landscape might change if the dominant pro-establishment party, United Russia, would include among the top three candidates in its electoral list a person who looks like a possible successor, perhaps Sergei Chemizov, director general of the arms trading monopoly Rosoboronexport, who is also a party leader (Ezhednevny zhurnal, September 7). The time for nomination would come in early October at the Soviet-style party congress, but so far the Kremlin has shown no sign of attempting an experiment of this sort, so most probably the short list will consist of Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, unsinkable Minister of Emergency Situations Sergei Shoigu, and some popular artist or an Olympic champion, or perhaps Artur Chilingarov, who recently led a “patriotic” scientific expedition to the North Pole.
Open and even demonstrative support for this party of the ruling bureaucracy from the state apparatus would then secure it some 50-60% of the vote, while the rest would be distributed among three parties performing the role of loyal opposition. The Kremlin has recognized the risk of fanning ethno-nationalist sentiments and discarded its previous electoral “project,” Rodina (Motherland), effectively banning the most charismatic nationalists, like Dmitry Rogozin, from partaking in the campaigning. Instead, a quasi-party, Justice Russia, has been put together for exploiting the widespread feelings of social injustice and issuing generous promises to the “have nots.” It will be competing in this field with the lingering Communist Party and the populist one-man show of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, misnamed the Liberal-Democratic Party. The newly raised threshold of 7% guarantees that no parties disapproved of by the Kremlin — like the liberal Yabloko, led by Grigory Yavlinsky, or the coalition of opposition groups called Other Russia that staged several desperate rallies this spring — would stand a chance. Elections from single constituencies have also been cancelled, so no independent candidates would appear among the disciplined parliamentarians who will populate the fifth Duma (Rossiiskaya gazeta, September 4; Vremya novostei, September 6).
Foreign policy does not enter in any significant way into the electoral debates for what they are worth. All parties stand for further boosting Russia’s greatness and wholeheartedly support Putin’s self-assertive line, as drawn in his Munich speech six months ago (EDM, February 14). That is probably why the issues of human rights and media freedom were not even briefly mentioned at the meeting between Putin and President George W. Bush on the fringes of the low-content Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Sydney, Australia last Friday. Bush has probably concluded that his expressed concerns about Russia retreating from democracy and warnings about the risks of brandishing the “energy weapon” were falling on deaf ears, so the only exciting new initiative involved plans for a fishing tour in Russia (Kommersant, September 8).
Putin’s pronounced desire to stay above the fidgeting of electoral politics does nothing to clarify the issue that looms large over the Russian political class – who is the next potentate? Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev ventured some “friendly advice” recently to stop bothering about constitutional provisions and Western reaction – and stay for an extra term of indefinite duration, taking the best interests of the country to heart (Vremya novostei, August 20). Putin has repeatedly denied any plans to prolong his reign, but his ambiguity in the choice of a successor, perhaps entirely rational from the point of view of keeping the feuding pack of courtiers under control, implies that the option de facto still remains open. While the majority of Russians would be ready to vote for the person suggested by Putin, none of his lieutenants looks remotely “presidential.”
On the way to Sydney, Putin used a pit stop in Kamchatka to demonstrate his particular closeness with First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, who has been loyally standing in the tsar’s shadow for years, but it is doubtful whether this pale copy is capable of an independent political existence (Nezavisimaya gazeta, September 6). He would hardly be the right person to overcome the alienation between Russia and Europe that might reach a new low by the end of the year (Gazeta.ru, September 6).
With all the electoral talk about continuity, it is quite clear that the unbendable rules of politics will force the new ruler to consolidate his own power base and put the blame for the accumulated problems squarely where it belongs – on his predecessor. It is interesting in this respect that the Russians, defying the stereotypes and showing resistance to massive propaganda, express a preference for restoring democratic norms rather than further strengthening executive power (Vedomosti, September 7). Combined with a strong demand for re-distributing energy profits, society’s hidden dissatisfaction with the quality of the ruling elite may bring the political cycle to a sudden end, dethroning a just-unveiled “Putin version 2.0.”