The Coming Potemkin Elections

If anybody thought that Russia may reverse the course towards totalitarianism mapped by Vladimir Putin, better think again.

The words that come out of Russia may sound pluralistic: “We already see five candidates to claim the presidential seat in the 2008 elections" (Putin last week), until one looks at the candidates, all seat warmers of the current president and with little recognition even inside Russia, other than the one bestowed upon them by the man himself.

The Russian president had just canned his prime minister Mikhail Fradkov and introduced the successor, who was readily accepted, no questions asked. Until then Victor Zubkov, 66, was not just below the radar screen, he was nowhere except in the realm of Putin’s cronies, an obscure ex-tax police director of Saint-Petersburg at the time of Putin’s tenure there. Now, Zubkov, in Putin’s Russia has at least equal chances if he chooses to run for the presidency in the 2008 elections.

September 2007 became an important bellwether for Putin’s power. Laying off Mikhail Fradkov who was not just prime-minister but also chairman of the State Duma, and having Zubkov approved by majority vote in the Duma almost immediately was something to behold.. The new prime-minister did not waste much time in taking over, already hinting at plans to reshuffle the government. What was more important was the announcement as was made by Putin and which stunned everybody. “Last year there was not a single candidate, but now there are five already. It is good that a new name emerged [Victor Zubkov] for the citizens of Russia to have a chance to choose from… The new prime-minister will have a chance to run for the presidency in the 2008 elections as any normal citizen of Russia”

Equally stunning were the words Putin used in explaining the reasons for Fradkov’s dismissal “… the members of the [old] government are people of the first stage. As I see they have slowed down their work today, and started thinking more about their own fate after the elections". The new protégée himself did not exclude the possibility of running for presidency, if he succeeds in the prime-minister’s post.

Zubkov’s appointment less than a year before the elections resembles the appointment of Putin himself by then-President Boris Yeltsin, who then resigned on the last day of 1999, appointing Putin in his stead. However, at least for now, perhaps still shell shocked most Moscow observers view Zubkov as one more “technical” prime minister, interpreting the move as a way to renew a competition between possible successors.

But a new poll in Russia for the upcoming State Duma elections shows that surprises are unlikely and Putinism is here to stay.

The opposition political parties are languishing as demonstrated by what was just published by VCIOM (All Russia Center for Public Opinion studies) and all it comes down to one player and a bunch of bid actors that cannot hope for anything other than a minority representation. The poll shows an overwhelming lead of Putin’s favorite United Russia, headed by Boris Gryzlov, over its nearest competitors. In fact the next two popular answers were: “Difficult to say (no preference)”, 16% and “I will not vote”, 15%. The communists were next with 8%.

Putin’s rule and ideology seems to have taken hold in ways that surprised even seasoned observers of Russia. There does not appear to be any chance for a voting breakthrough in the coming two months that would bring forward any liberal or democratic thinking in today’s Russia and it looks increasingly clear that the outcome of the Duma elections is quite preordained. The majority in the new Duma will be a clone of the one now. Boris Gryzlov will be one of five candidates for the presidency.

Interestingly, the right-wing parties probably pose the only potential opposition to the current Kremlin. There are three right-wing parties that have a chance of getting at least some representation in the new Duma. The Union of Right Forces, Yabloko and the Democratic Party of Russia, lost the previous elections despite being supported by a group of Russian oligarchs failing to collect the minimum of 5% for Duma representation. However, there are rumors that they may unite in a single right-wing coalition and this may allow them some representation.

But all pre-election news in Russia point towards a bleak future for any notions of democracy or western style pluralism and economic liberalization. The hard-line course followed by Vladimir Putin is likely to be preserved by his successor.