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.
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"Many people are getting irritated to see parliament turned into a salon-like forum that provokes only discussions about who's wearing what, who's sitting with whom, and what are they laughing and gossipping about," says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist who studies Russia's political elites. "This reinforces the tendency of Russians to view politics as merely a show."Skip to next paragraph
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Denis Volkov, a researcher with the independent Levada polling agency, confirms the Duma's decline in public esteem. "The Duma comes 14th in prestige among the people from a list of 17 leading state organizations, after the president, government, trade unions, the FSB [security service], etc," he says.
Scandal erupted in April when a weekly tabloid, Moskovsky Korrespondent, published an unconfirmed report that the still-serving President Putin had secretly divorced and planned to wed the young gymnast and Duma deputy Alina Kabayeva. Putin scotched the story, and the newspaper promptly shut down, citing "financial" difficulties.
"Putting these young women into the Duma was a light-headed action that threatens to compromise the authorities who made this choice," says Eduard Sorokin, an expert with the Stadion sports news agency. "They have no qualifications for the job, they simply raise their hands to support decisions made by their elder party colleagues."
Rodnina, by most accounts a hard-working and conscientous deputy, cautiously defends her younger colleagues. "Possibly it's an artificial movement of such people through the structures of authority, but they will be a good example for other youth to follow," she insists.
For her, the job is a way to promote her first love, Russian sports. "With UR's help, we've been able to convince the government to fund development of school teams in various sports," after years of post-Soviet neglect, she says.
Sergei Markov, a public affairs expert elected on UR's ticket in 2007, suggests party-appointed deputies are a necessary evil.
"Putin is trying to find a new way to bring the party close to the people, without using ... American-style methods," he says. "Too much freedom, in the absence of a strong civil society, would only mean that strong business interests would use their wealth to take over the Duma. I am myself an example of someone ... brought in from outside the party, which helps to make it less bureaucratic and more open to the public."
A contrary example is Vladimir Ryzhkov, an independent liberal politician who was elected to the Duma four times after 1993. Following the Kremlin-authored electoral changes, Mr. Ryzhkov found himself shunned by United Russia and other major political parties, and was unable to even run in last year's December elections.
"From the moment Putin came to power [in 2000], the degradation of parliament began," Ryzhkov told the independent Novaya Gazeta in an interview last month. "Today, the profession of politics is effectively banned in Russia."