Potemkin Politics in Russia

What a coincidence. This week, when democracy champion and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Moscow, she told Russians via a radio interview that too much power is concentrated in the hands of the presidency (i.e. Vladimir Putin).

At the same time, the pro-Putin party which controls the parliament appeared to show democratic backbone, criticizing the Kremlin leadership to which it has been so loyal.

Several prominent members of United Russia, which controls two-thirds of the seats in the Duma, or lower house of parliament, complained that administrative pressure on business is hurting the investment climate and that the courts are far from independent. They also said United Russia is moving to form "liberal" groups in the party, apparently setting up some ideological competition within United Russia.

This looks like just the kind of healthy democratic development the US would like to see more of in increasingly authoritarian Russia.

But don't believe this fake-out. The Financial Times reports it's believed to be coordinated by Vladislav Surkov, Putin's point man on political projects. The suspected purpose of this loosening is to head off the opposition in the 2007 parliamentary elections, and to mollify Russians who wondered where the Duma was when the government botched social benefits.

Secretary Rice trod a fine line during her visit, assuring Putin that the US did not want to diminish Russian influence in the region, even as America grows friendlier with newly democratic countries like Ukraine and Georgia. She balanced her criticisms about Russia's restricted media and concentration of power with positive remarks about protesting Russians and the political opposition.

But the US is unlikely to let up its pressure for political reform in Moscow. On May 9, when President Bush visits Russia to mark the end of World War II, what Potemkin politics will they try out on him?

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