Communists set to gain from Putin's squeeze on democrats
Restrictive new electoral rules could mean only two parties in the new Duma
Luke Harding in Korolyov
Monday November 19, 2007
Gennady Zyuganov grinned at his wrinkled audience as a voice boomed out: "Comrades, let us salute the heroes of the revolution!" A procession of rather ancient men shuffled forward. Zyuganov gave them each a medal.
One 94-year-old hero - born under the tsar - had problems mounting the wooden stairs of the theatre where the election rally was being held. Zygunov bounded down from the stage. "Ninety-four," he exclaimed, pinning on a medal for long service. "Amazing," he said.
Ninety years after the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, Russia's Communist party is still alive and well, if rather long in the tooth.
Lenin may have been dead for 83 years, the Soviet Union may have disappeared, and the prospects for world revolution look dim. But as Russia prepares for a parliamentary election next month, the Communists are enjoying a revival.
Opinion polls suggest the party will finish second in the December 2 poll with 15% of the vote - behind President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party. With Russia's liberal opposition in a state of disarray, the Communists are the last democratic force left. Even Lenin might have appreciated the irony.
Zyuganov, the party's long-standing leader, was campaigning in the grim concrete town of Korolyov, 15 miles outside Moscow. It was once famous for its cosmonauts. Now, though, its engineers and rocket designers are among capitalist Russia's many losers.
Speaking beneath a faded Soviet era stucco ceiling, Zyuganov said that the Communists were the only party in Russia to care about social justice. "If all of Russia's resources were divided fairly you'd have $160,000 [£80,000] each," he told his supporters.
Instead pensioners survive on just barely 3,000 roubles (£60) a month. "When Putin came to power there were seven oligarchs. Now there are 61", he said. It wasn't Stalin's fault that Hitler invaded Russia, he added, in response to a note passed from the floor.
Zyuganov told a Roman Abramovich joke. Roman arrives in heaven only to find his way blocked by St Paul. St Paul asks Abramovich: "Do you own Chelsea, five yachts, and a 5km stretch of beach in the south of France?" Abramovich replies: "Yes". St Paul replies: "I'm not sure you're going to like it in here."
Zyuganov's message is a seductive one for the vast majority of Russia's 142 million inhabitants - and, in particular, its 38 million pensioners. They have failed to benefit from the country's enormous oil wealth, he says, while a kleptocratic Kremlin clique has grown prodigiously rich.
"We are the only party stopping Russia from descending into full-blown corruption," he told the Guardian. Is Russia a democracy? "Not really," he admitted.
Russia's Communists still enjoy widespread support despite serial attempts by Kremlin technologists to kill them off. The 90th anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution this month drew some 20,000 on to the streets of Moscow. Steered away from Red Square they ended up outside Moscow's new £500 a night Ritz-Carlton hotel, where young Communist pioneers danced and waved red pom-poms while men in cloth caps sang patriotic songs with the eyebrow-raising words: "For motherland and for Stalin."
"Life was much better under communism," Pavel Kotov, 16, said. How would he know? '"My parents are both Communists. I started to support them two years ago".
Other protesters said they were fed up with bureaucratic corruption, which had grown rampant under Putin. "Some aspects of life are better. But in many ways we're worse off. You can travel abroad now but only 10-15% of the population has enough money to do so," said Oleg Nevsky a retired physicist.
Some were angry. "Putin is worse than Hitler," one man said, waving a homemade banner showing Russia's leader disappearing down a toilet. "Eight million men have died," - a reference to Russia's spectacular population decline under Putin, especially among Russian men, who on average are dead by 58. "Russia now has 9,000 villages where there are only old ladies."
United Russia already dominates Russia's sycophantic State Duma. But early last month Putin announced he was putting his name at the top of the United Russia party list, a move that boosted its poll ratings from 47% to 56%.
Under Russia's constitution, Putin is obliged to step down as president next May. But most observers believe he will carry on in power, either as prime minister, president or in a new role.
New electoral rules raising the threshold for getting into parliament from 5% to 7% will make it hard for any opposition party to win seats.
This means that the party that once believed in proletarian dictatorship is now Russia's last democratic option - and the only thing preventing the country from becoming a one-party state. The Communists and United Russia could well be the only two parties in the new Duma, analysts say.
"The others have been excluded from the parliamentary sphere. The Communists will be the only oppositional force. This means voters who want to retain opposition in any form have to vote for the Communists," said Leonid Sedov, of the Levada Centre.
Sedov said that after seven years of Putin most Russians no longer believed their country was a democracy. They also felt the Kremlin would probably tweak the election result. "I think at the stage of counting the vote it will be done somehow by giving fake details of turnout," he predicted.
He added: "I don't think the Kremlin cares very much about its image in the west any more."
Zyuganov, who nearly beat Boris Yeltsin in Russia's 1996 presidential election, is accused by some of secretly conspiring with the Kremlin. In 2004 he mysteriously dropped plans to run against Putin. Zyuganov rejects such claims as smear stories.
"There are no completely independent actors in Russian politics," said Grigorii V Golosov, a professor in the faculty of political sciences and sociology at St Petersburg's European University. "But I would still say that the Communists are relatively autonomous among Russia's not completely autonomous political parties."
At the theatre Tatiana Viktorovana, an engineer, said she was impressed by Zyuganov. She thought he was a strong leader. "Putin doesn't think about the needs of ordinary people. Zyuganov does".
The State Duma
Russia's December 2 elections may well return only two parties to parliament - Putin's United Russia and Zyuganov's Communist party - thanks to new electoral rules that penalise small blocs. The Kremlin raised the threshold for getting into the State Duma from 5% to 7%, meaning that western-orientated reform parties like Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces are unlikely to muster the necessary votes to get in. The Kremlin has also abolished first-past-the-post constituencies, meaning independents will lose their seats, and only 11 out of 85 parties have been allowed to register.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007
Evidently you have a front row seat for Interesting Times--"Interesting" in the Chinese sense.
Russia Pursues Crackdown
Leaders of an Opposition Party Among Scores Detained as Police Disperse March in St. Petersburg
MOSCOW, Nov. 25 -- Russian riot police detained the leaders of an opposition party Sunday and violently dispersed what officials described as an illegal rally and march in St. Petersburg.
Among those detained were Nikita Belykh, chairman of the Union of Right Forces, and Boris Nemtsov, a deputy prime minister in the 1990s. Both men are candidates for the Union of Right Forces in parliamentary elections next Sunday, and Nemtsov was chosen Friday as the party's candidate in the March presidential election.
Officers detain Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the Union of Right Forces and presidential candidate, at a rally against President Putin's government.
Nearly 200 people were detained in the city, including activists allied with Garry Kasparov, the chess grandmaster and opposition leader who was sentenced Saturday in Moscow to five days in jail for participating in an "illegal procession." He and his allies attempted to march to Russia's Central Election Commission to hand in a protest letter on the conduct of the elections.
In St. Petersburg, Russian and foreign correspondents said police beat activists with batons and their fists before hustling them into buses that took them to police stations.
Police defended their actions, saying they were provoked by demonstrators attempting to hold a rally in an unsanctioned location in the city's center.
Activists said police used the same heavy-handed tactics that Russia so forcefully condemned when employed by authorities against the opposition in neighboring Georgia, a country whose leadership is reviled by the Kremlin.
Authorities appear unwilling to tolerate public protest ahead of the parliamentary elections as they push for an overwhelming victory for the pro-Kremlin United Russia party.
Opposition rallies across Russia on Saturday were broken up by riot police or canceled after organizers were arrested.
"They have forbidden us from discussing Putin," Nemtsov told demonstrators in St. Petersburg just before he was detained. Nemtsov, who was later released, told the Russian news agency Interfax that he was talking "with pensioners and veterans of the siege of Leningrad" when riot police seized him.
Belykh, who was also released, had earlier told reporters by phone that he was walking toward Palace Square in St. Petersburg and "was just about to begin talking when police appeared, grabbed me by the legs and arms and shoved me into a paddy wagon, where I am now."
His party had been deeply skeptical of the street protests organized by Kasparov over the past year. But in recent weeks, the Union of Right Forces, or SPS, has adopted a more confrontational attitude as authorities have constrained its ability to campaign. Before heading to St. Petersburg, Nemtsov also addressed the rally Saturday in Moscow that led to Kasparov's arrest.
"The authorities are trying to stunt the SPS election campaign not only from underneath by seizing campaign materials and arresting activists in the regions, but now they have also set upon party leaders," the party said in a statement Sunday.
The head of the Council of Europe, the continent's leading human rights organization, expressed dismay about the weekend arrests. [..]
I feel little sympathy for the leaders of the right, who themselves used to play hard against their own opponents and imposed western economic theories in Russia in a Pinochet-like style. [..].
What makes me really frustrated is that I can find no political group in Russia with a good old social-democratic stance, who would advocate tolerance and social justice.
11 parties have been registered for the elections: the Agrarian Party of Russia, Civil Force, the Democratic Party of Russia, the Communist Party (KPRF), the Union of Right Forces (SPS), the Party of Social Justice, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), A Just Russia, Patriots of Russia, United Russia, and Yabloko
United Russia as Clear FrontrunnerCommunists Always Second Best
The Communist Party of the Russian Federation is the most belligerent opponent of the Putin regime. Its opposition, however, is mostly verbal.
Communist leaders criticize the Putin regime in bitter terms but are incapable of proposing anything positive or constructive. Most of their populist slogans that aim at improving the living standards of unprotected groups of the Russian population have found their way into the arsenal of other parties, including United Russia and even the right-wingers. This is a hitch in the game the Communists are playing on the social protest field where they used to be strong.
The Communist Party has an edge over the other parties owing to the discipline and excellent organization of its electorate. Its elderly loyalists are used to mandatory voting since the Soviet era, and their turnout rates are traditionally higher than those of the other parties. Backed up by activists with more free time on their hands, the Communist Party can spend fewer campaign resources. By late October, its campaign fund had $2 million altogether. In contrast, the campaign funds of the leading parties, including United Russia, the LDPR, and even the Union of Right Forces, were more than 10 times higher. (Izvestia, "United Russia and the President's Approval Rates on the Rise," October 17, 2007, and Izvestia, "Zhirinovsky Squandered Away 170 Million," October 17, 2007.)
Liberal Democrats in the Running
Vladimir Zhirinovsky's LDPR has a better chance of making it into the Duma than any other party save United Russia, although it is not a foregone conclusion. This right-nationalist party is a kind of one-man band. Its popularity is hanging on the striking and contradictory personality of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, known for his nationalist and xenophobic pronouncements. It is no small wonder: His party's slogan is "good for (ethnic) Russians means good for everybody else."
Zhirinovsky is no opposition politician, though. LDPR's faction in the State Duma tends to approve the government's draft laws on most issues. Zhirinovsky often acts as the Kremlin's mouthpiece to float the ideas the Kremlin deems attractive but too outrageous for moderate voters and the outside world.
Given the current high rate of illegal and legal immigration into Russia from the former Soviet republics and the prevalence of immigrants in an array of key economic sectors (retail, produce markets, gambling), Zhirinovsky's nationalist ideas are getting a rousing response from a large number of ethnic Russians.
Zhirinovsky's stance on international issues is clearly anti-Western. Addressing the LDPR Congress with a presentation titled "Global Civil War," Zhirinovsky identified Great Britain as Russia's arch-enemy. Also quite telling is the choice of the person placed second on the party's federal ticket. It is Andrei Lugovoy, a former Federal Security Service officer-turned-businessman, who is charged in the United Kingdom with the murder of FSB defector Alexander Litvinenko. The U.K. is seeking his extradition in conjunction with the case.
Just Russia's Electoral ChancesDo Liberals Have a Chance?
The Union of Right Forces (SPS) and Yabloko are the only parties running for the Duma that represent opposition to the Kremlin. [..]
SPS is the most consistent force to defend the principles of economic freedom, the rule of law, and civil society in Russia. Its power base is largely represented by the fledgling middle class. However, it is facing grave internal and external problems. A split attitude toward the Putin regime has generated two schools of thought within the party. The first stands for backing Putin on key issues and offering only tempered criticism; the second favors bitter criticism of the Putin regime as the basis for drafting their own platform and electoral tactics.
The Kremlin and United Russia rightfully regard SPS as their real contender and seek to discredit it. The party's detractors are aggressively using the fact that Anatoly Chubais, who sides with SPS, is CEO of the government-controlled energy monopoly Unified Energy Systems (RAO UES). They charge that the energy monopoly's resources are being channeled to fund the party campaign.
SPS has recently stepped up its criticism of Vladimir Putin and United Russia as its electoral campaign pivot. [..] However, SPS radicalization brought about the exodus of some regional leaders from the party ticket. Be that as it may, the odds for SPS winning Duma seats are slim.
The same could be said about Yabloko. The party largely unites an intelligentsia that failed to find its place in the socio-economic circumstances of post-Communist Russia. In addition, SPS and Yabloko face competition for liberal votes from the newly formed Civil Force party, led by well-known lawyer Mikhail Barshchevsky. Unlike the former two, Civil Force is in the Kremlin's good graces. Barshchevsky himself holds the prestigious position of the Russian government's representative at the Constitutional, Supreme, and Supreme Arbitration Courts.
I have found the review below pretty informative. [..]
Extract from Who's Who in Russia's Parliamentary Elections
P.S. Sorry, Nimh and Ramafuchs, there is much to be said from my side but I am simply very short in time. Maybe later I can give my comments.
Russian election inspires chorus of international criticism
4 December 2007
Citing widespread fraud and intimidation of opposition parties, the Council of Europe, the German government, the OECD and a number of others have chimed in to condemn the conduct of Russia's recent parliamentary elections. During the elections President Putin's United Russia party received 64.1% of the vote, while only three other parties obtained sufficient votes to be represented in the State Duma.
A joint parliamentary observation mission from the OSCE and the Council of Europe concluded that the elections were "not fair" and "failed to meet" many of the organisations' standards for democratic elections. The Portuguese EU Presidency expressed its "concern" about the detention of opposition marchers during the election. The German government said that "measured by our standards, it was neither a free, fair nor democratic election", and concluded that "Russia was not a democracy and is still not a democracy".
But the spokesperson for the European Commission only said that the EU is "aware of the allegations of irregularities" and that it will issue a comment after an analysis of all relevant reports.
Russians Pick Order Over Democratic Freedom
December 12, 2007
Angus Reid Global Monitor
Over two-thirds of adults in Russia believe maintaining order is very important, even if democratic principles and personal freedoms are trampled, according to a poll by Yury Levada Analytical Center. 69 per cent of respondents agree with this statement, while 18 per cent disagree. [..]
Do you agree or disagree with this statement? - "Maintaining order is very important, even if democratic principles and personal freedoms are trampled."
13% Hard to answer
Source: Yury Levada Analytical Center
Methodology: Interviews with 1,600 Russian adults, conducted from Nov. 20 to Nov. 23, 2007. No margin of error was provided.
I have found the review below pretty informative. I would only disagree in one point. In my opinion SPS and Yabloko are as much liberal as Zhirinovsky. Being a neo-liberal in economy does not make you a true liberal. (Quite the contrary, to the best of my knowledge these economic theories were put forward and supported by politicians who were rather conservative than liberal - R.Reagan, M.Thatcher etc.) SPS are partisans of laissez-faire capitalism imposed by bolshevik means. Yabloko are actually a one-man party and Yavlinsky's position towards the "shock without therapy" reforms of the 1990's was somewhat like "they do everything right but wrong". In 1993 leaders of both factions urged Kremlin to use all available military force against "foes to the reforms".
The original use of the term "liberal" in English politics was to modern free enterprise economic development and policies that are called "conservative" in the United States.
The meaning of political terms such as "liberal" and "Conservative" is in fact quite variable.
The original use of the term "liberal" in English politics was to modern free enterprise economic development and policies that are called "conservative" in the United States.
At one point in the transformation of Russia and the former Soviet Union it was the Bolshevics who were the "Conservatives".