Will Russia Have Its Own Groundhog Day?

With the Russian parliamentary elections over, the pro-Kremlin “United Russia” party with its more than 36% of votes looks like the only real winner. It also succeeded to get a massive victory in single-member constituencies. Together with some independents who differ with United Russia in nothing but name, openly pro-Kremlin forces have got about 240-280 seats. And if we add Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democrats who will vote for anything if properly paid, and Rodina block which claims to be a force “opposing the government but supporting the president”, things are very much under control for the Kremlin puppet-masters.

Alternative vote count organized by the Communists could be seen online on election night at www.fairgaime.ru . It clearly gives a different picture, putting United Russia first but only with 32% instead of 36% and showing that left liberal Yabloko Party actually passed the 5% threshold and should have been allowed to enter the Duma. However even this vote count can leave no doubt that United Russia did win the election. Ironically, the alternative vote count gives the Communist Party (KPRF) even less votes than the official one (12,6% instead 12,7).

While the liberal media is mostly interested in the failure of liberal parties (Yabloko and the Union of Right-Wing Forces which will not be represented in the Duma), the real key event in these elections, which will most likely influence the development of politics in the near future, is the demise of the Communists. Of course, the Communists blame everything on hostile media coverage. But neither of these factors is new. In fact, in the previous elections they have done much better, even in circumstances that were objectively worse.

There has always been anti-Communist propaganda in the media, but the difference this time was that quite a few KPRF voters actually believed it; and they did so because the negative coverage in the media confirmed their own experience with the party. That is why it is clear that this year, the Communist Party’s disastrous performance is of its own making. The KPRF has always been an eclectic coalition of groups held together not by ideology, but rather by “clientelist” ties and a a bureaucratic apparatus.

This coalition cannot last forever, and now it is in the process of “decomposing.” Traditionalist, conservative voters are moving to United Russia, nationalist voters are moving to Homeland and the LDPR; and quite a lot of left-wing voters are so frustrated with the Communist Party that they preferred not to vote at all, or to vote “against all.” Now KPRF is struggling for survival. It has got only 53 MPs but even these are moving in different directions.

Some are ready to join Rodina. Others are calling for a reform in the party. Some are pretending that nothing happened. Regional organizations are insisting on changing the leadership and it seems that current party boss Gennadiy Ziuganov has little chances to stay after the congress, which was initially planed on December 12 but is now postponed till January.

Of course, the outcome of this election is a defeat for the democratic process in Russia, but it also has a positive aspect because our political system has never really been democratic. Today, the authoritarian character of the political system has simply been exposed. In the long run, it will probably have an illuminating and invigorating effect on civil society and society as a whole — spurring people to action and self-organization.

The 1999 election demonstrated that the ruling elite leaves nothing to chance or to democracy, which amounts to the same thing. The succession crisis that year revealed the extent to which a change of president causes problems for the entire ruling elite. After taking over the Kremlin with the backing of the Yeltsin-era family, the Putin team gradually began to force their predecessors out of key posts in politics and the economy.

Nothing was done to solve any of strategic problems facing the country. What is more important, however, is that even the real priority of Kremlin’s team – replacing old oligarch with the new ones – was not achieved. This is a slow process and even in the best-case scenario the new oligarchs will just be coming into their own in 2007 and 2008. The closely controlled transfer of power in 1999 and 2000 ensured that the first wave of oligarchs enjoyed a lengthy grace period. But even that sort of grace won’t be enough to help the second wave.

Now Putin is launching his campaign for the second term and there will hardly be any problem. But after wasting a first term four more years is clearly not enough. The only thing to do is to prevent another transfer of power — at least not in 2008, and by no means via the ballot box.

On Dec. 7, revision of the Constitution became inevitable because voters in Komi-Permyatsky and Perm approved a referendum on merging the two regions. Such a merger would require a Constitutional amendment.

United Russia and its new comrades have enough votes to amend the Constitution and extend the presidential term or remove the limit on the number of terms a president may serve. If all goes as planned, Vladimir Putin will become president in 2008. And in 2015 as well.

We are witnessing the progression from “managed democracy” to an authoritarian regime with a democratic facade. The Communist Party, which provided the ideal opposition in the old system, must be replaced with a new lapdog opposition. The Rodina bloc fits the bill. It has no organization to speak of, and its political viability will last only so long as its leaders are allowed to appear on state television.

Naturally, Rodina looks impressive as a newcomer who managed to enter the Duma with 9,1 % of votes. Alternative vote count done by the Communist Party gives Rodina even more votes.

The liberal parties called for capitalism and bourgeois democracy, but unfortunately the two only go together in wealthy countries. In a country where 80 percent of the population is shut out of consumer society and living in poverty, democracy inevitably turns into an attack on private property.

Is there a future for political opposition in Russia? Yabloko is no longer in parliament, and the Communist Party has lost forever the conservative, nationalist voter, who has gone over to Rodina, LDPR and United Russia. The Communists’ notion of a “red-white union” is no longer viable. Internecine squabbles within the party are heating up.

The Kremlin’s main goal in Sunday’s election was to eliminate parliamentary opposition as a political institution. In this it was successful, though the downfall of the Communist Party and Yabloko could give rise to a new, non-parliamentary radical political resistance and a new left. The widespread refusal to vote speaks for itself. We did not stay home because we’re lazy; I say this as someone who has avoided taking part in our farcical electoral process for a decade now. We vote with our feet. And this is the last democratic right that hasn’t been taken away from us.

Candidate “none of the above” is already raking in 20 to 25 percent of the vote in the single-mandate districts. In some constituencies election failed to attract the necessary minimum of votes and there will be additional elections organized later.

This is a symptom of the changing political reality. There is no point in trying to build a political campaign on this discontent, however. People who don’t vote will not unite without a positive ideology.

It will probably also be good for the left in helping it to overcome the impasse symbolized by the ineffectiveness, opportunism and nationalism of Gennady Zyuganov’s Communist Party. Political defeats can have a stimulating effect, but much will depend on the people themselves and the lessons they draw from what has happened. Chances of forming a New Left party are now discussed not only by disaffected Communists and radical intelligentsia but also by left liberals who earlier voted for Yabloko.

The new opposition will arise not from parliamentary intrigues and petty politicking. It will only emerge when we refuse to play by the rules imposed on us by the current system. Sooner or later democratic longings will fuse with social protest. The finale will be extremely interesting. But how long will this take?

At a meeting held by the Georgian opposition last month, one speaker remarked that he had been 6 years old when Shevardnadze took power in the republic. Now his own daughter was 6, and he didn’t want her to grow up as he had under Shevardnadze’s thumb.

I’m reminded of the movie “Groundhog Day,” whose hero wakes up every morning to find himself reliving the day before. But who needs images from Hollywood. My generation still remembers the stability of the Brezhnev era. And my daughter is also 6, by the way.

Boris Kagarlitsky is director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.

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