Russia's other Olympic powerhouse – in parliament
In a controversial bid to gain support, the ruling United Russia party has bolstered its ranks with eight Olympic medalists, a popular singer, and a prima ballerina from the Bolshoi Ballet.
Long known for its Olympic champions, Russia has a 2008 roster all but guaranteed to bring home numerous gold medals. But it also has a contingent of Olympians at home that make for quite a powerhouse – in parliament.Skip to next paragraph
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Among the eight champions are swan-like gymnast Svetlana Khorkina, a seven-time Olympic medalist; Alexander Karelin, a wrestler who went undefeated from 1987 to 2000; and pairs skaters Irina Rodnina, who won three consecutive Olympic gold medals and 10 World Championship titles from 1969 to 1978.
Elected to the State Duma in December on the ticket of Vladimir Putin's United Russia (UR) party, Ms. Rodnina – one of the most beloved Soviet figure skaters – is the doyenne of a highly visible group of celebrity politicians recruited to boost UR's clout with average citizens.
"As Russia is a young democracy, and we are still illiterate about laws and such, it's easier for people to turn to figures that they trust," says Ms. Rodnina, a peppery mother of two who lived in the US for 12 years before returning in 2002. "When people have done everything for the good of their state in the realm of sports, it's natural to believe they'll do the same in politics."
But the meteoric, Kremlin-ordained path to power of these celebrity politicians – some of whom, such as Bolshoi Ballet star Svetlana Zakharova, have kept their day jobs – is beginning to stir controversy, even in the state-guided media.
Parlaying stardom into a successful political career is not unique to Russia – think Arnold Schwarzenegger – but critics complain that few of Russia's new parliamentarians, who also include a famous filmmaker and a popular singer, have done any political heavy-lifting at all. As a result, they say, the Duma now features far less debate and evokes memories of Soviet days, when the USSR's rubber-stamp parliament was stuffed by party fiat with "hero workers," poets, cosmonauts and other Communist archetypes.
Masha Lipman, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow, points back to the Kremlin-authored 2005 overhaul of the electoral code that eliminated direct elections and empowered party elders to simply appoint the candidate list they wanted. Voters now choose a party, not a representative. While the new system is defended by some as a stepping stone to full democracy, Ms. Lipman says it's opened the door to individuals who lack the expertise to govern. "These [celebrity politicians] have no say in policy, and some of them clearly aren't even interested," she says.
The UR parliamentary caucus includes a gaggle of striking young women dubbed "Putin's beauties" for posing in various states of undress for men's magazines. Even the cautious state TV news shows the women giggling during Duma sessions or chatting on designer cell phones.