As 14 Russian regions prepare to hold local elections slated for March 11, the country's electoral system appears to have the healthy glow of democracy. Two Kremlin-backed parties, Fair Russia and United Russia, are competing smoothly against each other in the full glare of media coverage.
But in what some see as a full dress rehearsal for December's parliamentary polls, other parties complain they are being blacked-out and even stricken from the ballot in some cases. For example, in St. Petersburg, the centrist Yabloko party was barred from running because of a lack of substantiation of signatures on its registration papers.
"The authorities are doing their best to prevent us from taking part in elections, especially in places where we have the best chances," says Sergei Mitrokhin, Yabloko's deputy chair. "The legislation now in place permits authorities to bar any party from participating in elections, and they are using this to eliminate any real opposition. In this situation, it hardly matters which of the two 'parties of power' end up with the most votes."
Welcome to Russian democracy, version 2.0. Experts say that Russia's old party system, which developed during the freewheeling 1990s, is being phased out through tough legislation and administrative crackdowns. In its place is forming a field of two – and maybe three – giant, pro-Kremlin "virtual parties" that are expected to dominate the landscape thanks to backing from the government and the state-run media.
Fair Russia, a self-described left-wing party, says its goal is to displace the opposition Communists. The centrist United Russia, established five years ago to "support President Vladimir Putin," already controls a majority of seats in the State Duma and many local legislatures. Experts say that there are also plans to create a Kremlin-friendly liberal party, to be named Free Russia, tasked with squeezing out the independent Yabloko party and the Union of Right Forces.
"Voters are being invited into a Soviet-style shopping experience, where you can choose from two kinds of white bread and two kinds of brown bread," says Boris Makarenko, deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies, an independent Moscow think tank. "It's an imitation system. The Kremlin is skillfully constructing an entirely democratic facade."
Most experts predict that Fair Russia, which was created in October by folding together three smaller parties, will rocket to second place in Russia's parliamentary polls this December, even though many people on the street do not – yet – even recognize its name.
Reclining in a wood-paneled conference room in the party's plush and spacious downtown Moscow headquarters, Politburo Secretary Nikolai Levichev doesn't deny that Fair Russia's explosive debut on Russia's political stage might owe something to Kremlin sponsorship.
"It would sound funny to say the Kremlin doesn't play any role in Russian political life," he says, deflecting the question. But he also argues that it was necessary to create Fair Russia to present voters with a left-wing but pro-Kremlin alternative to United Russia. "If Fair Russia shows that it can run an effective campaign against such a powerful force as United Russia, we hope this will be the first sign that genuine political competition is taking root in Russia."
In the last elections to the 450-seat State Duma – the lower house of parliament – held in 2003, United Russia and its allies took a "constitutional majority" of two-thirds of the seats in parliament's lower house. The two small liberal parties, which had formerly had Duma representation, failed to hurdle the 5 percent barrier. Even the Communists, accustomed to winning a quarter of the votes, were reduced to a small rump of deputies.
United Russia has employed its legislative muscle to push through a series of Kremlin-authored amendments to Russia's electoral laws aimed at narrowing the field to big, Moscow-centered parties.
The changes have ended the single constituency races that often produced independent, locally based politicians. Now all Duma deputies are chosen by their party leaderships; voters cast ballots for the party, not the person. Other changes have lowered voter turnout requirements, raised the threshold for entering the Duma from 5 to 7 percent, and eliminated the possibility to express a recorded protest vote. Mr. Putin also canceled elections for regional governors, blocking another avenue from which strong, independent political challengers might arise.
In January, the Federal Registration Service ordered more than half of Russia's 35 political parties to disband after they failed to meet strict new requirements, including a minimum membership of 50,000 distributed across more than half of the country's 89 regions. Remaining smaller parties are now forbidden to form electoral coalitions, which in the past enabled some to hurdle barriers for entry into the Duma.
"Elections in Russia are not as bad as they seem; they are much worse," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "In the Russian political system, parties have become virtual projects, a kind of show. Elections have been stripped of any element of real competition."
United Russia, the pro-Kremlin behemoth described by Mr. Petrov as a "kind of officials' trade union," is widely expected to sweep next month's regional polls as well as the Duma elections. Held three months before the March 2008 presidential election to replace the ultrapopular Putin, the Duma contest is viewed largely as a test of public mood and a demonstration to the world of Russia's democratic credentials. Experts say Fair Russia is almost certain to come in second, taking up to 25 percent of the votes.
"[The] two mechanisms created to support [Putin] – Fair Russia and United Russia – will win," says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected analyst. "But does the correlation between them matter much? I doubt it. The real party of power in this country is the presidential administration, and the main concern is for Putin to win."