Features

Putin's romp

International | RUSSIA: Presidential elections subvert popular government in favor of one-man rule

Issue: "John Kerry's dream," March 13, 2004

No one in Russia needs a presidential election to tell them Vladimir Putin is in charge. The Russian president fired his entire cabinet on Feb. 24, including the country's prime minister, just three weeks before a nationwide poll on March 14, the country's fourth presidential vote since the downfall of the Soviet Union and Mr. Putin's second run at office.

With Mr. Putin facing only faint opposition, sacking the government became a way to jolt public attention back to the Kremlin, thereby elevating voter turnout. Mr. Putin promised to replace the cabinet even before the election, so assured is the president of victory. As a further surprise, he named Mikhail Fradkov, a career bureaucrat, prime minister on March 2. Assembling a new team well ahead of balloting sends an unmistakable message to voters: Under Mr. Putin, elections are a thing of the past.

"I think Putin may have overplayed his hand. He is making it so obvious that nobody has any chance of winning that he has turned these elections into a farce," said longtime Russia analyst and former Reagan aide Larry Uzzell. "What we are seeing is the slow but steady consolidation of power into the hands of one man."

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Russia may have a president, a prime minister, a popularly elected legislature, a constitution, and a rising standard of living. Commonly held perceptions of what democracy should look like, however, do not apply.

Since taking office in 2001 from Russia's first democratically elected head of state, Boris Yeltsin, Mr. Putin has moved to undermine the pillars of a free state rather than reinforce them. International monitors say his government manipulated controversial presidential elections in Chechnya, along with nationwide parliamentary elections last year. At the same time, the government forced closure of Moscow's last major non-state-run television network. The government also moved to break up and take over Russia's most successful private oil conglomerate, YUKOS, arresting and jailing its chief executive officer, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, on dubious charges, and seizing stock shares.

Mr. Putin has a name for his style: "managed democracy." Western observers, however, say Russia under the former KGB agent has fallen well below the threshold of democracy. "I would call Russia an electoral autocratic regime," Stanford University political science professor Larry Diamond said recently. Mr. Uzzell said he would describe Russia's present form of government as "a stable kleptocracy."

Mr. Uzzell, who heads International Religious Freedom Watch and has lived for the last decade in Moscow, said, "One can no longer think of Russia as in transition. It's very stable. And neither politically, economically, nor morally does it measure up to G-8 standards," a reference to the world's wealthiest Group of 8 democratic-capitalist nations.

Despite economic and political advances since the fall of communism, one-fourth of Russians live in poverty. Government workers-including doctors, teachers, and military personnel-often go unpaid. War in Chechnya continues, with increasing documentation of widespread military abuses. As the YUKOS scandal suggests, Mr. Putin has made more headlines renationalizing private enterprise than privatizing the country's vast government holdings. Meanwhile, Mr. Putin's popularity rating holds steady at 80 percent.

"Putin has the soul of a KGB officer," said Mr. Uzzell. "He is very skillful at manipulating public perceptions while increasing control." Mr. Putin has gradually eliminated Yeltsin cronies from senior government positions, replacing them with KGB colleagues from his own political base in St. Petersburg. These are popularly known as "Chekists," a reference to security agents preceding the KGB; or Siloviki, men of force.

"While wrapping themselves in the flag and patriotic rhetoric, they do not hesitate to misuse law enforcement and the courts to achieve their goals," notes Ariel Cohen, a Russian and Eurasian research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

Their tactics are one reason Mr. Putin's political opponents are in disarray. The electoral commission has approved six candidates to stand against Mr. Putin, but none is expected to garner more than 15 percent of the vote.

After Mr. Putin's United Russia party swept December parliamentary elections, opposition leaders stepped aside and handed their candidacies to party novices. Prominent figures like ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who participated in the last three elections, will sit out, banking on Mr. Putin to retain the two-term limit for presidents, which would make this his final four-year term. Mr. Zhirinovsky put up his bodyguard, Oleg Malyshkin, to run in his place.

Other candidates found themselves caught in pulp-fiction sagas of their own, or perhaps the government's, making. Ivan Rybkin, speaker of parliament in the Yeltsin years, disappeared for five days in February. When he surfaced in London, the Liberal Russia party candidate claimed he was kidnapped, drugged, and held in Ukraine. He promised to campaign from relative safety in London but is unlikely to get more than 1 percent of the vote.

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