Russia: In Duma, A Partial Victory for Putin

12 MINS READDec 6, 2003 | 22:15 GMT
A pro-Putin bloc is expected to win a relative majority in Russia's Duma elections on Dec. 7. That will help President Vladimir Putin suppress the country's oligarchs, but it will not be enough to gain unquestioned influence over the Duma. Opposition in Parliament and the country will remain sufficient to throw a shadow over Putin's chances for re-election in next year's presidential polls.
Elections for the Duma, the lower chamber of the Russian Parliament, are scheduled for Dec. 7 and allies of President Vladimir Putin can be expected to win a relative majority. Nationalists will outpace liberal candidates in the elections — an outcome that will displease Washington and likely lead to frostier relations between the United States and Russia. Ultimately, Putin will have to strike alliances with some opposition figures in order to push through his strategy for Russia — strengthening the country internally with the aid of Western capital. Though Russia's oligarchs will lose some influence in the new Duma, they will retain the potential to pose challenges to Putin's re-election bid next year. The elections could be affected by terror-style bombings — prepared specifically to disrupt the voting — by Chechen militants. The Dec. 5 suicide attack against a suburban train in southern Russia, which killed 42 people, served this purpose. Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) sources told STRATFOR that the agency has specific intelligence about similar attacks in the making in Moscow and other large cities on election day. Though these would be unlikely to bring voting to a halt, they might prompt more voters to cast ballots for opposition rather than pro-Putin candidates. Relative Majority for Pro-Putin Candidates Barring major terrorist attacks in Moscow, STRATFOR anticipates that candidates friendly to Putin will win a relative majority in the new Duma, with the United Russia party taking possibly 29 to 35 percent of the chamber's seats — despite rather low popularity ratings for United Russia itself. The party's election chances will be boosted first and foremost by its association with Putin — who, despite Russia's ongoing struggles with Chechen militants and continuing socio-economic hardships for Russians — remains quite popular at the moment. Moreover, many Russians automatically give United Russia some credit in Putin's attempts to rein in the country's powerful oligarchs, who are perceived to be pillaging Russia's riches. Viewing Putin as their only viable protection against the oligarchs, many will cast their ballots for United Russia candidates in the Duma. By virtue of his KGB past and public rhetoric destined for internal consumption, Putin has retained an image as a defender of Russian strength against the encroaching influence of the United States — even though he has made many concessions to Washington since taking office. A second factor weighing in United Russia's favor is Russia's immaturity as a democracy: Legislative elections are heavily influenced by executive power. That power resides in the Putin-dependent central and regional administrations and, thus, the "administrative resource" — as it is called in Russia — will strongly favor United Russia. Bureaucrats who fear losing their jobs — either from Putin's anger if they do not support his candidates or from opposition victories in the Duma — publicly will advance pro-Putin candidates within their regions with a preponderance of air time in local media and by urging subordinates to vote for them and controlling the election process in their regions. As a result, some voting fraud cannot be excluded as a possibility in the Duma polls. Third, the Putin administration — including its regional and local affiliates — has worked relentlessly to undermine popular support for opposition parties of all descriptions. Knowing that the Communist Party had the best chance of surpassing United Russia at the polls, the thrust of the government's public relations and propaganda campaign has struck out against the communists with inevitable effects on that party's public image. Last, but not the least, there is no united opposition to the pro-Putin bloc at this time — and both the liberal and nationalist groups within the opposition are divided among themselves. On the liberal side, the Yabloko party and Union of Rightist Forces do not want to form an alliance; on the nationalist side, the Communist Party refuses to cooperate with a new election coalition known as Motherland. Putin's attack against Russia's richest oligarch, former oil executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky — who has financed several major opposition parties (including both liberals and communists) in an effort to undermine Putin's influence at the Duma level — has been instrumental in splitting and weakening opposition. At the same time, a majority of Russia's independent MPs tend to associate themselves with those in power — a factor that will strengthen the chances of legislation put forward by the pro-Putin bloc and further expand the president's support base in the Duma, possibly to 40 percent. That will not be enough to achieve an absolute majority, however, so Putin will have to draw some part of the opposition to his side to secure more than 50 percent of the Duma's votes. Communist Party: Weakened and Split The chief opposition, the Communist Party, approaches the elections in a severely weakened state — not only because of the Putin administration's offensive, but also because of poor leadership within the party. Lacking charisma, strategic vision and tactical skills, party chief Gennady Zyuganov consistently has disappointed his followers. For instance, although he finished head-to-head with then-incumbent leader Boris Yeltsin in the 1996 presidential elections, he ultimately suffered a miserable defeat through his failure to draw the third runner to his side and to take advantage of claims of election fraud noted by some independent observers. Many rank-and-file communists have criticized Zyuganov and other party leaders as "arm-chair opposition" figures — enjoying the privileges associated with holding parliamentary seats, supporting Putin legislation (albeit grudgingly) and making no serious attempts to dislodge the ruling party. Zyuganov's personal thirst for power has prevented him from ceding leadership to a new cadre of younger communists who, with a better understanding of the Russian economy and their appeal to the country's youth, might effect a shift in the status quo. This is why he has refused to form an alliance with the nationalist Motherland bloc led by Sergei Glaziev, a talented middle-aged economist, who Zyuganov fears would replace him at the helm of a Communist-nationalist alliance. Zyuganov has accused Glaziev of all manner of sins, including being a sell-out for Putin. Sources in the Russian presidential administration tell STRATFOR that the government encouraged Motherland's formation as a means of splitting the leftist-nationalist opposition. However, the same sources acknowledge that Motherland is not in Putin's pocket and remains willing to play an independent role. With Zyuganov's refusal to work with the bloc, Putin's nightmare scenario — a joint nationalist opposition beating out his bloc in the Duma — will not become reality. We expect the Communist Party to place second in the Duma elections, with possibly 20 to 27 percent of the vote, on the strength of its legal, economic and foreign policy platforms, which remain popular with voters. But the moment of truth lies ahead: Many party members, frustrated by the Communist Party's seemingly eternal inability to win elections outright, could start to abandon it after these Duma elections — eventually ending the party's role as the second political force in Russia. Liberals: Poor Chances in Duma At the other end of the opposition spectrum, liberals are currently as weakened as the Communists — but because their following has always been rather small in Russia, two parties may not win any seats in the Duma at all. Of these two, the Union of Rightist Forces has the better chances — it is expected to take 4.5 to 7 percent of the vote, while Yabloko is likely to win 3.5 to 5 percent. The threshold for winning a Duma seat is 5 percent. The liberals' performance at the polls probably will be poor for three reasons. First, many Russians blame liberals for destroying the nation's economy through the shock-therapy methods of the 1990s and selling out Russia to Washington. Despite formally never being in power, liberal leaders were prominent in the Yeltsin government, pushing the country toward liberal market reforms at seemingly any cost and making unilateral concessions to Washington. Second, liberal parties sided with the oligarchs in their battle against Putin's government — thus alienating supporters among the intellectual classes. Finally, in a rather surprising twist, a portion of the traditional support base for liberal parties happens to overlap with that of the Motherland nationalist bloc: young and middle-aged intellectuals and businessmen who believe that justice, democracy and an economy rooted in high technology can rule in Russia, without that economy being a slave to the United States or the oligarchs. This overlap is most apparent with Yabloko, which is akin to the Social Democrat parties in Western Europe. Also, like the Communists and nationalists, the two liberal parties have failed to forge a united front in the Duma elections. Liberal leaders are aware of their poor election chances and are making harsh, occasionally hysterical, statements. For instance, Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky and Irina Hakamada of the Union of Rightist Forces recently said that fascism will come to rule in Russia if the pro-Putin bloc wins at the polls; these far-fetched statements will be greeted coldly by some liberal supporters. Anatoly Chubais, a Putin opponent who heads the St. Petersburg clan of oligarchs, will achieve better results for the liberals by forcing some bankers to abandon their support of the Motherland coalition, the main voting spoiler for liberal groups. Even this is unlikely to improve dramatically the standing for the Union of Rightist Forces — in which Chubais is a prominent leader — since he is hated by many Russians due to his role in privatization efforts, which many citizens believe to involve murky insider deals. Dark Horses: Doing Well The recently created Motherland bloc is one of several dark horses that will impede the chances of several traditional contenders in the Duma race. In addition to hijacking votes, the bloc is led by several well-respected personalities, such as economist Glaziev and former Russian Airborne commander-in-chief Gennady Shpak, who is viewed as a hero in the Afghan and Chechen wars. Moreover, the group is touting a well-designed party program that projects Russia's advance as a market- yet socially oriented economy with an independent foreign policy; this program will appeal to many. Motherland's showing could be hurt by recent strong attacks from several political opponents, but its popularity is on the rise: Ultimately, it could earn anywhere from 5 to 15 percent of the votes in the Duma elections. If represented in the Parliament, it likely will become a wild card that could cooperate with either pro-Putin or communist agendas. The Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP) headed by Vladimir Zhirinovsky is another dark horse. Despite its ultranationalist slogans, the party never has backed up its rhetoric with action — and because it has served the governments of Yeltsin and Putin well, many suspect it was created clandestinely by the Russian Federal Security Service to serve the Kremlin. In fact, despite initial criticism of Kremlin initiatives, LDP politicians have always voted for government-proposed legislation. That said, the party's most important function for the Kremlin — and for Putin in these elections — is robbing the votes of nationalistically minded citizens from more serious nationalist contenders, such as the Communist party and Motherland. Many voters who care about rhetoric, but not whether LDP pledges are fulfilled — such as some poor and uneducated Russians — again will support this party. Its leader, the controversial Zhirinovsky, consistently drives its popularity: He is a talented speaker sometimes dubbed a clown for his theatrics, such as provoking a fist-fight on live television. We expect LDP to draw 9 to 15 percent of the vote in these elections. The biggest surprise in the Duma race might come from the Russian Party of Pensioners. Though its leaders lack any name recognition whatsoever, the party appeals to the elderly — a group that, having suffered the most from post-Soviet economic reforms — traditionally votes for the communists. However, disappointed with the Communists Party's perennial election losses, some of these Russians could cast their ballots for the Pensioners, which stands to win perhaps 3.5 to 5 percent of the total vote. Other marginal parties are unlikely to be serious contenders for Duma seats. Some 4 to 8 percent of Russian voters, seeing no light in the tunnel for themselves or Russia, likely will vote against all candidates — a move that will aid the Putin bloc and the liberals, since many of these voters normally would support the communists. The new Duma, therefore, is likely to be comprised of Putin's United Russia, the Communist Party, Zhirinovsky's Liberal-Democratic Party, Motherland and possibly the Union of Rightist Forces and Pensioners' Party. With Putin determined to continue with some market reforms and to bring Western capital to Russia, he will have to balance this policy with nationalists' suggestions. The middle ground where all are likely to meet is in further suppression of the oligarchs, restoring Russia's real economy and on the need for state capitalism. As for the role of Western capital in Russia, even communists no longer deny it is needed for the country's revival. An important feature of these elections will be very high participation from the business class: Many Russian oligarchs and other large business owners will be elected to the Duma as individuals. These candidates will in fact lobby for their own interests rather than serving the faction under whose umbrella they campaign. If elected, these MPs will support Putin only as long as he retains political control within Russia. If, within the first half of 2004, oligarchs should form an anti-Putin protest movement that is seen as capable of challenging the president, these MPs easily could join in as well. So, despite a partial success for Putin in the Dec. 7 elections, opposition in Parliament and among the electorate will remain sufficient to throw his re-election chances next year into question.

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