A healthy display of democracy in action? Not, it seems, if you're a Kremlin leader.
A "Ukrainian scenario" for Russia was one of the possibilities firmly ruled out in a meeting last week, widely covered in the Russian media, between President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Also in the room were selected political leaders at the Kremlin. The topic? The vexed issue of reforming the country's widely distrusted electoral system.
In the midst of an unprecedentedly sharp dialog, Mr. Medvedev appeared to agree with opposition parliamentarians that the growing dominance of a single political party, the pro-Kremlin United Russia, has brought unrepresentative and in some cases dysfunctional government to many Russian regions, and that may pose a serious impediment to future economic progress. But both Medvedev and Mr. Putin insisted nothing is basically wrong with the system and rejected claims that United Russia's supremacy is due to official sponsorship, blanket support from the state media, and outright electoral fraud, as many opposition leaders allege.
"It's important to point out that this was an amazing event, the first time we've ever seen top leaders confronted with this kind of criticism to their faces," says Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "That, in itself, is an optimistic thing and gives rise to hopes of real change."
Experts say the meeting is a sign that Russian leaders have realized that the era of massive oil-and-gas revenues is over and the waves of cash that smoothed over social problems and political disputes during Putin's two terms as president cannot be expected to return anytime soon. Medvedev has made "modernization," the goal of bringing Russia into the 21st century, the signature theme of his presidency.
"Everybody understands that political reform is needed" in order to build social stability and affirm trust in government, says Valeria Kasamara, a political scientist at the state-run Higher School of Economics in Moscow.
"People are losing faith in the possibility of honest elections, and turnout figures show they are ceasing to participate," she says. "The authorities fear a possible destabilization and they feel a need to show that something is being done."
But "what they are trying to do amount to half-measures," such as lowering the threshold for a party to enter parliament from 7 to 5 percent, or banning the practice of early voting, Ms. Kasamara argues. "Even if they only want to have a shop-window brand of democracy, they should at least put some democratic goods in the window."
Since Putin entered the Kremlin a decade ago, Russia's political system has narrowed, the number of eligible parties has been sharply proscribed, elections for regional governors canceled, the possibility for independent candidates to run eliminated, and major TV networks brought under state control. At the meeting Putin defended his legacy as "necessary for political stability," though he agreed that it was important to prevent any potential slide into Soviet-style authoritarianism.
"We must continuously think about improving our political system... but we must act with extreme caution," Putin said. "We must not allow our political culture to follow a Ukrainian scenario."
That remark surprised many in Russia's liberal opposition community because Ukraine, for all its economic difficulties, is one of the few post-Soviet states that still enjoys competitive democracy, including press freedom and open, combative election campaigns.
"If Putin says he's against 'Ukrainianization,' you can translate that as meaning he opposes media freedom and real elections," says Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister who is now co-chair of Solidarnost, a nonparliamentary opposition movement that was not invited to the Kremlin meeting. "How can you hold a serious discussion about political reform but say you don't want those things".
Even the Communists, whose name was once synonymous with an authoritarian one-party state, say they're appalled by the system that Putin built and his reluctance to accept the need for sweeping changes.
One dominating party
"We cannot move forward without real competition in politics, real democracy," says Sergei Obukhov, a leading Communist Duma deputy. "Today we have only one dominating party that controls everything (United Russia). Even though the Communist Party is in the Duma, and are in opposition, how can you say there's any real opposition if there is no possibility that power will ever be allowed to change hands?"
Much of the freewheeling, sometimes angry discussion at the State Council meeting, revolved around opposition accusations that last October's regional elections were rigged in favor of United Russia, a charge both Medvedev and Putin denied.
United Russia has won sweeping control over the State Duma, most regional legislatures and many city councils in recent years. Last October it won 32 out of 35 seats on Moscow's city council, a fact that even Medvedev described as "strange."
"We need to ask ourselves if we have done everything to ensure that voters' views have been heard, not distorted, and taken fully into account, as the principles of democracy demand," he said. Nevertheless, he added, "in general the results of the regional elections reflect the real balance of the political forces and public sympathies in the country. This is an irrefutable fact."
But a study of those polls by the independent Levada Center in Moscow found multiple cases of ballot-stuffing, official miscounting and voter coercion. Separate complaints posted by aggrieved opposition parties, such as the liberal Yabloko, appear to bear that out.
"There was a really serious difference between the results of our advance polling and the official outcome of the elections, too much to be explained by any factor other than fraud," says Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the Levada Center. "What we find are not only violations in the activity of local electoral commissions, but at the higher levels as well. It is clear that this is purposeful policy," and not a few isolated cases, he says. "Elections are becoming more and more an empty ritual in Russia."
Another Levada survey, conducted last December, found that 57 percent of Russians think their country needs democracy, but just 9 percent said they saw evidence of democracy developing in Russia in recent years. Nearly a quarter of respondents, 23 percent, said that democracy was not a suitable system for Russia.
Experts say that Putin's invoking of Ukraine, which has seen a great deal of peaceful political turmoil since the 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution, was no mistake.
"The Kremlin is exploiting the image of political chaos in Ukraine to prove that controlled, managed democracy of the Russian type is better," says Mr. Petrov. "There's no doubt that the Russian elite, and Putin in particular, are deeply scared by (the Ukranian) example."