A nationalist upsurge

Print edition : January 02, 2004

The resounding victory of the pro-Kremlin United Russia and the remarkable showing by other nationalist parties in the elections to the Duma seem to herald a revival of Russian nationalism.

in Moscow

THE December 7 elections to the Russian Parliament, Duma, resulted in a resounding though predictable victory for the pro-Kremlin `party of power', the United Russia (U.R.). The other success stories of the election are the two strongly nationalistic parties, Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) - a misnomer as the party is liberal only in name - and the newly formed nationalistic Rodina or Homeland Bloc, sometimes called the Motherland Party. The strongest post-Soviet Opposition party in Russia, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), lost substantial ground. The two prominent pro-Western parties, Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, have been virtually exterminated. With its new composition, the Duma looks pro-Kremlin and heavily nationalistic. Many analysts are wondering whether `authoritarianism' is making a comeback in Russia.

President Vladimir Putin. The Duma results will help him achieve substantial progress on his economic reforms agenda.-REUTERS/ITAR-TASS/PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE

According to figures released by the Central Election Commission after 97.87 per cent of the votes were counted, the U.R. led with a vote share of 37.09 per cent, the CPRF followed far behind with 12.7 per cent (which is half of what it won in 1999), the LDPR received 11.8 per cent, and the Homeland Bloc did surprisingly well, garnering 9.1 per cent. At least 23 parties competed for 225 of the 450 seats in the Duma. Individual candidates, including independents and those owing allegiance to political parties, contested the remaining 225. The voter turnout was rather low at 56 per cent.

Together, the three pro-Kremlin parties (the U.R., the LDPR and the Homeland Bloc) have a majority. The Opposition is in disarray with the strength of the Communists down by half and the liberal parties virtually decimated. Clearly, the results have facilitated the consolidation of power by President Vladimir Putin. Analysts opine that with the latest results Putin will be in a position to achieve substantial progress on his economic reforms agenda. Investors hope that a strong presidency will help create an economically stable environment. They feel that Putin is in a position to amend the Constitution and win himself a third term in office in 2008 or, conversely, have his tenure extended. However, Putin has not expressed publicly a desire to stand for a third term.

Even after four years in office, Putin enjoys tremendous popularity. His successfully engineered reforms have had a positive effect on the Russian economy. This, combined with his populist campaign against the oligarchs, has touched a soft spot with the Russian public. Many Russians keep fearful memories of the economic chaos of the 1990s and dislike the oligarchs who grabbed state assets and made their wealth in the stilted privatisation deals of the period. The public prefers a strong President; Putin's stock had gone up in popular imagination after he brought to book Russia's richest oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former chief executive officer of Yukos oil company.

A pre-election billboard supporting the pro-Kremlin United Russia and its candidates, in Red Square, Moscow, on December 2.-MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP

The U.R., favoured by Putin, is primarily a centrist party, which has been built up largely by bureaucratic and corporate interests. During its campaign for the elections, the party projected its proximity to the President and the latter's achievements. Its most prominent slogan was, "United Russia - together with the President". After its election victory, the party is all set to continue with Putin's liberal reformist agenda. The LDPR, has towed Putin's line in the past and analysts expect that it will continue to do so. After demanding before mediapersons that the Constitution be amended and Putin given a third term, Zhirinovsky said: "The four-year presidential term is the American term, and it is not acceptable. The tsars ruled for about 15 years each. The general secretaries had 15-year terms on an average. This way, a President who serves two terms would get 14 years... There shouldn't be any limitations for the head of state at all. It should be like a monarchy."

Analysts warn that Putin will have to be wary of the Homeland Bloc. The Bloc, it is alleged, was created to split the communist vote, which it succeeded in doing. Communist ranks were ruptured in September by the left-leaning economist Sergei Glazyev, when he broke from the CPRF and created an alternative nationalistic Left column. Leaders of the Homeland Bloc campaigned on a platform for "social justice" and called for the redistribution of wealth by levying a series of increased taxes on big business. After the results were announced, Glazyev said that he would try to raise state revenues by 500 billion roubles a year. "I hope we will be able to push through laws that will allow us to increase the budget revenue by 500 billion roubles by taking away windfall profits from the exploitation of natural resources and by cutting back illegal capital outflows," he said. Roland Nash, who heads the research team at Renaissance Capital, Russia's leading investment bank, told Moscow Times recently that the Homeland Bloc now had the opportunity to "start whispering in the ears of the party of power and once you start going down the slippery slope of raising taxes, it is very difficult to stop". He further said that "one of the successes of Putin's first term was to roll back the tax burden. These sort of things could be put in jeopardy." However, on the whole, analysts remain confident that the Homeland Bloc will toe the line and Putin's reform agenda will remain on track.

A common factor that contributed to the victory of the U.R. and the nationalist pro-Kremlin parties was the overwhelming coverage accorded to them in the official media, both electronic and print. The publicity blitz was massive. The pro-Kremlin parties bought prime time on all major television networks, leaving very little time to the Opposition parties. The U.R. got blanket coverage; the party refused to participate in political debates on television but extensive coverage was given to it in the form of news items featuring party leaders such as Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov and Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu. The Communists slammed the government for not providing them media coverage and for running a major mud-slinging campaign against them. CPRF leader Gennady Zyuganov alleged that Putin was running "a war of extermination" against his party.

Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Russian Communist Party.-MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP

Perhaps a more serious indictment is the one made by international observers on the conduct of the campaign. Around 500 observers stationed in Russia by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe to monitor the December 7 elections claimed that the result was "fundamentally distorted" in favour of the U.R. because of the abuse of administrative resources for its campaign and the openly partisan coverage accorded to the pro-Kremlin parties by the media. British Member of Parliament Bruce George, current president of the OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly, announced that the elections had failed in meeting many OSCE and international standards. "We are certain the government knows how to meet these standards. What we are yet to see is the willingness to meet them," he said. He described the election as a "regression in the democratisation process in Russia". The monitors are also upset about the inclusion of about one-third of the country's Governors on the U.R.'s list of candidates. The United States has expressed concern about the conduct of the elections. White House spokesman Scott McClellan announced that "it was the OSCE which monitored the elections, and they expressed concerns about the fairness of the election campaign. We share those concerns."

It remains to be seen whether the elections will prove to be controversial However, there is no doubt that President Putin has consolidated power and is in a position to push effective legislation in respect of economic reforms. He enjoys considerable public support and most people in Russia want stability. The vote this time has been for a strong President and stability. Undoubtedly, the presidential election slated for March 14 will be a cakewalk for Putin.

As for the Opposition, analysts are divided on the reason for the defeat of the Communists. A section of them point out that in previous elections, when there was very little media or administrative support for the Communist campaign, they had done exceptionally well. Zyuganov's lack of charisma and drive is being seen as a reason for the rout of the CPRF. The wipe-out faced by the Liberals is attributed to a lack of foresight and sincerity on the part of the Yabloko and the Union of Right forces, especially their refusal to form an alliance. The party that everybody wants to watch is the Homeland Bloc, a lethal combination of leftist and nationalistic elements, a combination that seems potent enough to swing the mood of the Russian public.

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