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In Russia, Putin's democracy looking more like a facade

Former leader Mikhail Gorbachev and others are outraged after last week's elections, which only 3 percent of Russians believed were fair, according to a poll.

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Lawsuits against electoral authorities in the past have almost always been dismissed by state-dominated courts.

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"Everyone knows that the electoral process is dirty, and that UR basically controls the system," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. "In fact, the whole world sees this, and it's causing serious damage to the image of the country's top leaders. The Kremlin needs to take action to change this situation," before the next cycle of elections in just over two years time, he says.

Since Mr. Putin came to power in 2000, Russia's political system has been forcibly reshaped to eliminate pesky opposition parties and game elections to favor the giant and reliably pro-Kremlin UR. Mr. Putin's party now controls the vast majority of regional legislatures, most big city councils, and a more than two-thirds majority in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament.

That system, dubbed "managed democracy," reached a climax last year when Putin ushered his hand-picked successor Dmitri Medvedev into the Kremlin against virtually no opposition.

Kremlin facade of democracy
The Kremlin's efforts to create a facade that looks like genuinely contested elections – while ruthlessly eliminating serious contenders – took on almost comical dimensions in polls to choose a new mayor for Sochi, the host of the 2014 Olympic Games, where Putin has invested about $12 billion of the state's cash and much of his own personal credibility.

In the event last March, Putin's candidate won with a 77 percent majority, while opposition candidates and democracy activists launched futile protests over what they called heavy-handed state manipulation at every stage of the process.

But experts say the wave of regional elections carried out last week make those polls look almost fair by comparison.

"As we have seen in the past, candidates who were unwanted by the authorities were simply disqualified early in the process," says Andrei Buzin, chairman of the Interregional Association of Voters, a grassroots monitoring group. "As before, the police were often deployed to block opposition activities and meetings. But, unlike the past, when we didn't see direct falsifications, there was a lot of falsification in the vote counting in these elections."

Mr. Buzin says "the situation is getting worse, subjectively and objectively, much worse."

Former Russian deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, who faced huge obstacles in his bid to run for mayor of Sochi last April, says that this time around no candidate from his Solidarnost movement was allowed to run for city office in Moscow.

"Every single one of our candidates was disqualified, supposedly due to fraudulent signatures on their nomination forms," says Mr. Nemtsov. Even Nemtsov's own signature on one of the forms was declared invalid by officials, he says.

"It's absolutely terrible, like an election in the German Democratic Republic [the former East Germany]," he says. "Forget about elections in this country. It's just fraud, manipulation, and corruption. It's a great big fiction."

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