Putin's Landslide Takes Russia Back to the Cold War

Regensburg, Germany. Vladimir Putin’s political party, United Russia, won a crushing victory in Sunday’s election harvesting 315 of the 450 seats in the state Duma, the Federal Assembly’s lower house. This outcome was widely predicted and now it’s a waiting game to see what it means for Russian democracy, Putin’s future and whether this is the start of a new Cold War.

After Putin accepted the mantle of leadership for United Russia, the opposition melted away or was pushed aside by the Kremlin’s acid rhetoric and heavy-handed campaign management.

United Russia cast the election as a referendum on Putin’s nearly eight years in office. Their goal was to deliver a big victory, thereby giving Putin the “moral right” to maintain influence after he steps down as president in May. “The vote affirmed the main idea: that Vladimir Putin is the national leader, that the people support his course, and this course will continue,” said Boris Gryzlov, the parliament’s speaker.

Russians feel optimistic about their future. “Approximately half the population … believe that tomorrow will be better than today,” says Maria Marskevich of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Sociology. That optimism is based on Putin’s success at delivering stability and good economic times. Good economic news doesn’t totally explain the election results, however. Putin’s Kremlin altered election laws to fit his goal and unleashed his government to manage the election outcome.

Putin’s new election laws have been widely criticized as marginalizing opposition. All seats will be awarded based on a party’s share of the popular vote whereas in previous elections, half of all seats were distributed among the candidates contesting specific districts rather than based on the party’s national popularity. The changes may explain why only four of eleven qualifying parties won seats in the election. Big parties like United Russia, which have seats in the current Duma, were exempt from new qualification requirements.

Liliya Shibanova, head of Golos, a Russian election monitoring organization confirmed that the election outcome was never in question. "If we talk about real political competition, real political discussion — that is completely absent from this campaign," said Shibanova.

Communist party leader Gennady Zyuganov, who has contested numerous elections since the 1991 Soviet collapse, said the campaign was "the dirtiest and most disgusting" he had ever seen.

An opposition coalition led by Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion, held rallies and marches that were broken up by police and hundreds were taken into custody. "The fact is they’re not just rigging the vote. They’re raping the democratic system," said Kasparov.

"The use of bureaucracy [to influence the election] is on an unprecedented scale," said Marina Dashenkova of Golos. "People are complaining that their bosses are forcing them to take absentee ballots and vote for whom they say."

Alexander Kynev of the Foundation on Information Policy said several candidates had been pressured into dropping out of the race, one was murdered and others faced threats that their businesses would suffer or that they would be fired from their jobs. While one region offered young voters passes to pools and sports facilities; another says new housing will be built in that village that shows the most "mature" turnout.

Election monitors confirmed that state-controlled media failed to meet its legal obligation to provide equal treatment to all candidates and that Putin’s party enjoyed clear favoritism.

The Kremlin also shut out the elections-monitoring arm of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the most authoritative assessor of whether an election is fair. Sean McCormack, a state department spokesman, said, “It is extremely unfortunate that the Russian government put up all these obstacles to the OSCE sending a monitoring mission to Russia.” A spokesman for the group said Russia delayed granting visas for so long that the organization was unable to conduct a meaningful assessment of election preparations.

Such behavior is reminiscent of the Soviet-era. Without ascribing blame, it is curious that some of Putin’s opponents have suffered dire consequences not unlike those of his former KGB years. Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist and human rights activist well known for her opposition to the Chechen conflict and Putin, was shot dead in the elevator of her apartment building on October 7, 2006, Putin’s birthday. Former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko accused Putin of sanctioning Politkovskaya’s assassination. On November 1, 2006, Litvinenko suddenly fell ill and was hospitalized. He died three weeks later, becoming a rare victim of lethal polonium-210 radiation poisoning under highly suspicious circumstances.

Putin has been coy about his future plans. There is speculation that he will seek to change the constitution to allow a third presidential term, become the next prime minister, accept a world stage position, a major business venture, or become a national leader. "As for my future job, I have not decided yet where and in which capacity I will work," Putin explained.

Some speculate Putin could find other outlets for his ambition to remain engaged: he could become the head of Gazprom, the largest Russian company and the biggest extractor of natural gas in the world, or seek a diplomatic position that links Russia with other autocratic regimes like Belarus and Kazakstan or he could even become the president of International Olympic Committee (the next OIC elections will be held in 2009).

Some have proposed that Putin become Russia’s “national leader” similar to the role Kim Jong-Il plays in North Korea, a lifetime job. Prominent cultural figures, including Oscar-winning film director Nikita Mikhalkov and sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, have published an open letter to Putin, urging him to stay on as a personality cult "national leader." Such a scenario is not unfamiliar to Russians who may recall Joseph Stalin and Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin.

Unfortunately, Putin’s governing is negatively affecting Russian democracy. He has emasculated the democratic institutions that were developed in the 1990s and replaced them with Kremlin controls. Adrian Basora, former US ambassador in Prague, says Russia is emerging as a “sovereign democracy” that is tightly controlled, characterized by strong state manipulation of the sources of wealth. He says Russians have accepted this change simply because they want order and security. Basora believes full authoritarian consolidation has been Putin’s goal from the beginning.

The emergence of Russian authoritarianism and Putin’s personal popularity are reminiscent of a statement attributed to Joseph Stalin, “It’s not the people who vote that count. It’s the people who count the votes." If Putin remains the central power — prime minister, president or “national leader” — conditions will likely worsen and tension with the west could bring our relationship full circle resulting in an even more dangerous Cold War II.