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.

Fred Weir
Star: Irina Rodnina is one of a dozen celebrity politicians.
Gold: Ms. Rodnina, thrice an Olympic champion, was recruited to boost Putin's United Russia party.

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.

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.

"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."

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."

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