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Putin wins Russian parliamentary elections despite economic woes

Both Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chechnya's governor Ramzan Kadyrov face "votes" on Sunday. (AFP)
Both Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chechnya’s governor Ramzan Kadyrov won their respective “elections” on Sunday. (AFP)

Earlier this month, voters went to the polls in Belarus to elect the country’s rubber-stamp parliament under its authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko and, in what amounts to democratic liberalization, two opposition MPs were elected to the 110-member assembly from the constituency that contains Minsk, the capital.chechnyaRussia Flag Icon

Last weekend, a higher number of opposition MPs were elected to the  state Duma (ду́ма), the lower house of the Russian federal assembly, when Russian voters took to the polls on September 18. Nevertheless, despite the unfair and unfree nature of Russian elections, an electoral rout for president Vladimir Putin’s United Russia (Еди́ная Росси́я) means that Putin will now turn to the presidential election scheduled for 2018 with an even tighter grip on the Duma after United Russia increased its total seats from 238 to 343 in the 450-member body. As predicted, Putin took fewer chances in the September 18 elections after unexpected setbacks in the 2011 elections that saw United Russia’s share of the vote fall below 50% for the first time. 

Moreover, nearly all of the remaining seats were awarded to opposition parties — like Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party (Политическая партия ЛДПР), Gennady Zyuganov’s Communist Party (Коммунистическая Партия) and Sergey Mironov’s A Just Russia (Справедливая Россия) — that long ago ceased to be anything but plaint, obedient and toothless in the face of Putin’s autocratic rule, whose party logos even mirror those of Putin’s United Russia party. Putin’s liberal opponents, operating under greater constraints than in past elections, failed to win even a single seat to the parliament.



The drab affair marked a sharp contrast with the 2011 parliamentary elections, the aftermath of which brought accusations of fraud and some of the most serious and widespread anti-government protests across Moscow (and Russia) since the end of the Cold War, prompting demands for greater accountability and democracy. Today, however, though Russia’s economy is flagging under international sanctions and depressed global oil and commodities prices, Putin’s power appears more absolute than ever. He’s expected to win the next presidential election with ease, thereby extending his rule through at least 2024 (when, conceivably, American voters could be choosing the successor to a two-term administration headed by either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump). 

Moreover, more than 18 months after opposition figure Boris Nemtsov was murdered just footsteps from the Kremlin, perhaps the most telling statistic was the drop in turnout — from around 60% in the 2011 parliamentary elections to just under 48% this year. That’s the lowest in a decade, even as reports emerged of ballot-stuffing and other dirty tricks that may have artificially boosted support for Putin’s United Russia. Turnout in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where opposition voices have traditionally been loudest, fell even more precipitously to well below 30%. Though the low turnout might have boosted the share of support that Putin and his allies won, it’s also the clearest sign of growing disenchantment with Putin’s regime and its record on the economy (which contracted by nearly 4% last year, and is expected to contract further in 2016) and on civil and political rights. Corruption, as usual, remains rampant, even if oligarchs no longer dominate the Russian economy as they did in the 1990s. 

Perhaps the most well-known opposition leader today, Alexei Navalny, a blogger who was at the heart of the 2011 protests, has been notably quiet (with his own ‘Progress Party’ banned from the election), though he is expected to contest the 2018 presidential vote — at least, if he’s not banned or imprisoned.

As a depressed number of Russian voters cast ballots in Sunday's parliamentary vote, president Vladimir Putin seems to have the upper hand in the cat-and-mouse game with Russia's long-suffering liberal opposition. (TASS)
As a depressed number of Russian voters cast ballots in Sunday’s parliamentary vote, president Vladimir Putin seems to have the upper hand in the cat-and-mouse game with Russia’s long-suffering liberal opposition. (TASS)

Notably, it was the first election since 2003 in which half (225) of the Duma’s seats were determined in single-member constituencies, with the other half determined by party-list proportional representation as in recent elections. Though United Russia won just 140 of the 225 proportional seats, it took 203 of the single-member constituency seats, which undoubtedly contributed to its 105-deputy gain on Sunday. One such new United Russia deputy is Vitaly Milonov, a St. Petersburg native who has battled against LGBT rights for years, including a fight to introduce a law in the local city parliament in St. Petersburg banning so-called ‘gay propaganda.’ (For what it’s worth, Russian authorities today censored one of the most popular gay news websites in the country).

For the Kremlin, though there’s some risk that the new constituency-elected deputies could be more independent-minded than party-list deputies, it’s a risk balanced by the massive supermajority that Putin now commands in the Duma.

Conceivably, as Moscow’s economic woes grow, there’s nothing to stop Putin and his allies from moving the scheduled presidential election to 2017 — and there are signs that Putin plans to do exactly that. (The weekend’s parliamentary elections were moved forward to September from an earlier plan to hold them in December, scrambling opposition efforts).

The elections came just a month after Putin replaced a longtime ally, Sergei Ivanov, as his chief of staff, a sign that the Kremlin is already looking beyond the next presidential race to what would be Putin’s fourth term in office (not counting the additional period from 2008 to 2012 when Putin’s trusted ally Dmitri Medvedev served as president, with Putin essentially running the country as prime minister).

Anti-gay crusader Vitaly Milonov won a member constituency race in St. Petersburg. (RIA)
Anti-gay crusader Vitaly Milonov won a member constituency race in St. Petersburg. (RIA)

For Putin, the flawed parliamentary vote also comes at a crucial time for Russia’s role in the international order. Increasingly at odds with NATO, Putin thumbed his nose at American and European officials when he annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, then helped instigate a civil war in eastern Ukraine that continues even today. Increasingly, Putin believes that Russia has a geopolitical responsibility to all Russian-speaking people, even those outside Russia’s borders, complicating relations with several former Soviet states. Putin has also stepped up Russian military assistance to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, providing crucial support against Sunni-dominated militias in Aleppo and elsewhere — even as Russian and U.S. officials try to extend a ceasefire in the country’s now five-year civil war.

Moreover, though the Russian parliamentary elections are hardly front-page international news, the results are relevant to the 2016 US presidential election, in which Russian influence and cyberattacks have played a prominent role. As Republican nominee Donald Trump continues to praise Putin as a ‘strong leader,’ it’s important to note that Putin’s strength comes in large part from a brutal disregard for the rule of law and the liberal and democratic values that have, for over two centuries, been a fundamental bedrock of American politics and governance. To the extent that the next president of the United States has to deal with Putin’s ‘strength,’ it will be derived in part from a parliamentary victory yesterday that bears no resemblance to the kind of democracy practiced in the United States today, but through a mix of authoritarian force and coercion.  Continue reading Putin wins Russian parliamentary elections despite economic woes

Primakov’s legacy lives on in aggressive Russian foreign policy

primakovPhoto credit to AFP.

In an alternative universe, with just a twist in Russian politics, Yevgeny Primakov might have died, at age 85 late last month, as his country’s president.Russia Flag Icon

Instead, he’ll be known for what the international community remembers as ‘Primakov’s loop’ — his order that a Washington-bound plane across the mid-Atlantic reverse course and turn back to Moscow upon hearing the news that the United States had launched military action against Russia’s ally Serbia in 1999. Though it was ultimately a nationalist gesture that did nothing to stop the eventual NATO-led action in Serbia and the de facto independence of Kosovo, it was the highlight of Primakov’s turbulent nine-month tenure as prime minister.

Russian president Boris Yeltsin turned to Primakov in a moment of crisis, after the collapse of the Russian ruble and an economic collapse that left the once-proud country even more at the mercy of international institutions. Despite narrowly winning reelection over a cast of misfits, nationalists and washed-up communists in 1996, Yeltsin failed in his second term to restore the kind of economic prosperity that capitalism seemed so loftily to promise in the heady days following the Soviet Union’s breakup. Privatization of public industries amounted to a botched firesale of national assets, delivering wealth into the hands of a few lucky and well-placed businessmen who made obscene fortunes in the process.

A former spook who started his career as a writer for Pravda in Cairo in the 1960s, Primakov would become the chief Russian strategic on Middle East affairs across a career that spanned the Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Gorbachev eras, reached its apex under a wary Yeltsin and concluded with a turn as Russia’s chief envoy to Iraq in the lead-up to the 2003 US invasion. Primakov, not surprisingly, vociferously opposed US military action and had nurtured a decades-long relationship with Iraq’s president Saddam Hussein. Continue reading Primakov’s legacy lives on in aggressive Russian foreign policy

Opposition critic Navalny’s conviction, in Putin’s Russia, is a badge of authenticity


So right on time, the Russian government has engineered a conviction of Alexei Navalny, the outspoken critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin.Russia Flag Icon

His conviction stems from a truly bizarre accusation that he embezzled around $500,000 out of a timber company in Kirov, an industrial town hundred of miles northeast of Moscow, and all signs indicate that the conviction is politically motivated to remove Navalny as a Putin critic whose following is growing — and his conviction is likely to only enhance his attraction.

Navalny now faces five years in Russian prison far away from Moscow, where Navalny was running to contest the mayoral election on September 8, an election that’s now even more likely to be won by incumbent Sergei Sobyanin, a Putin ally who took power after former mayor Yuri Luzhkov was pushed out of office by then-president Dmitry Medvedev in 2010.  The election’s sudden timing effectively prohibited prominent billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov from arranging his complex international finances in order to contest the race, leaving Navalny as the leading prominent challenger.

Prokhorov, who owns the New Jersey Nets, and who waged a presidential campaign in March 2012, has shown that his opposition is a much more delicate dance with the Kremlin than Navalny, who led full-throated protests in Moscow protesting the presidential vote and credible allegations of fraud in the December 2011 elections to the ду́ма (Duma), Russia’s lower legislative chamber.  In contrast to Navalny’s sledgehammer opposition, Prokhorov has been more hesitant to cross Putin and Putin’s allies, and it was even speculated last year that Prokhorov’s opposition was entirely manufactured by Putin’s allies.  That’s probably not true — after all, Prokhorov, as a good businessman, has much more to lose from a full-throated attack on the Kremlin than Navalny — and he’s forged links with other credible opposition figures like former Russian finance minister Alexei Kudrin.

Navalny had become such a radioactive political figure in recent days that Prokhorov even refused to back Navalny in the Moscow mayoral race, instead endorsing Sergey Troitsky, the lead singer of a Russian heavy metal band, ‘Corrossive Metal,’ and who is most well-known by his stage name, Pauk, which means ‘spider’ in Russian.

But Navalny’s conviction today means that he’s likely to leapfrog the tentative Prokhorov and other anti-Putin activists as the central figure of the Russian opposition.  Russian prisons are notoriously brutal places, rife with violence and diseases, including drug-resistant tuberculosis, and Navalny faces some amount of peril in the years ahead.  Navalny’s conviction is already drawing international condemnation, and Putin will now have succeeded in elevating a one-time gadfly into a political figure empowered with the authenticity of someone who’s willing to face down Russia’s horrible prisons as the price of speaking out against Putin.

Navalny tweeted and blogged to his supporters, encouraging them to keep up his fight against Putin’s dominant Еди́ная Росси́я (United Russia) party, which he famously referred to as a ‘party of crooks and thieves.’

After the verdict, Navalny tweeted: “So that’s it. Don’t get bored without me. Most importantly, don’t sit around doing nothing. The toad won’t get off the oil pipe by itself.”

In his LiveJournal blog on Wednesday Navalny said: “The current authorities are not a big, healthy fish, but rather a bloated fish or Latin American toad, which puffs itself up when it sees danger, with the help of television.”

Utlimately, Navalny’s trial and conviction are another indication that the Putin administration intends on being as fully authoritarian as it needs to be to hold onto power, in the same way that prominent opposition leader and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko remained — and still remains — in prison over politically motivated charges in neighboring Ukraine during last October’s parliamentary elections.

But Putin, in attempting to silence a 21st century critic with ham-fisted 20th century methods, risks that his strategy will backfire by bringing Navalny even more notoriety and credibility.  Just witness the international attention that the politically motivated trials against oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky commanded, the sudden 2006 murder of prominent anti-Putin journalist Anna Politkovskayaor even the suspicions of foul play in the apparent suicide earlier this year of exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky in London.

Continue reading Opposition critic Navalny’s conviction, in Putin’s Russia, is a badge of authenticity

Putin ally Sobyanin maneuvers to hold onto power in Moscow in snap September election


Though it’s sometimes easy to forget in the post-Cold War era, Moscow is still the most populous city in Europe and one of the five most populous cities in the world — it not only Russia’s capital, but Russia’s central city for power, politics and finance. Russia Flag IconMoscow

That makes the city’s mayor one of the most powerful official in the entire Russian federation and, with snap elections due for Moscow’s mayor in September, it gives some of the most unpredictable voters in Russia the opportunity to make a rare popular statement with five years to go until another presidential election, despite fears that the vote may be titled in favor of the incumbent mayor, an ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Earlier in June, Moscow’s current mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced his resignation, despite the fact that his term runs through 2014, setting up snap elections for September 8 that seem increasingly likely to be an easy victory for Sobyanin as his most viable rivals have either stepped aside or face an uphill challenge even making it to the ballot.  Critics immediately called Sobyanin’s resignation and the early elections a ruse to avoid real competition, thereby cementing control over Russia’s largest city within Putin’s grasp.

Elections for Moscow’s mayor are themselves a new phenomenon, given that then-president Dmitry Medvedev and the Russian Duma only reintroduced direct elections for governors and other positions last year, after president Vladimir Putin suspended gubernatorial elections in 2004 on the somewhat dubious rationale of national security and anti-terror efforts.  Under the new direct elections law, however, new hurdles have been introduced that require candidates to have the support of other lawmakers in the region.  Given that Putin’s United Russia (Еди́ная Росси́я) is by far the dominant political party in Russia, that means Putin will continue to have at least some influence on gubernatorial and local elections.

Moreover, earlier this year, Putin pushed through another law allowing regions to avoid direct elections through an alternative process whereby each party in a regional legislature submits three candidates to the Russian president, the Russian president chooses three finalists, and the regional legislature elects a governor from among the three finalists. (You can’t make this up!)

The man who was most widely anticipated to challenge Sobyanin — former presidential candidate and billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov — opted out of the mayoral race in mid-June when it was clear that he would not be able to meet the legal requirements in time for the snap race.  Prokhorov, who formed Civic Platform (Гражданская Платформа), a liberal political party in June 2012 in the wake of his relatively successful presidential race.  But Prokhorov, who is the owner of the New Jersey Nets professional basketball team in the United States, would have run afoul of requirements that require his assets to be repatriated prior to serving as Moscow’s mayor. Continue reading Putin ally Sobyanin maneuvers to hold onto power in Moscow in snap September election