Vladimir Putin's 'managed democracy' faces key test in Russia

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has trumpeted a system of 'managed democracy' that has virtually guaranteed his party's grip on Russian politics – until now.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin gestures as he speaks during a United Russia party congress in Moscow, Sunday.

Russians are expected to turn out in large numbers Sunday to choose a new parliament, after a controversial election campaign that the Kremlin describes as a healthy exercise in democracy but which even participating opposition party leaders denounce as little more than a charade.

Russia-watchers will be scrutinizing these polls closely because they represent the pinnacle of "managed democracy," the somewhat paradoxical electoral system constructed over the past decade by Vladimir Putin, which creates the detailed impression of functioning multi-party political competition while ensuring that outcomes fall within a range dictated by the Kremlin.

Since Mr. Putin himself appears poised to return to supreme power in presidential elections early next year for at least one more six-year term, and he has ruled out any major reform of the political system, the current campaign to replace the 450-seat State Duma offers the clearest glimpse available of how Russian politics are likely to unfold over the foreseeable future.

"Putin's main idea is that democracy is impossible in a country of angry, poor people," says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected Duma deputy with the ruling United Russia party (UR). 

"Russia is developing democracy, but the government must build the foundations for it," including law-and-order, social stability, raised living standards and an evolved, responsible civil society, he adds.

Support for United Russia is slipping

Kremlin spin doctors stress their narrative, which is that Sunday's elections will feature a free choice by Russian voters among an acceptable range of viable alternatives. On the surface, it's a persuasive case. Seven parties, spanning a full spectrum from the Communist Party on the left, to the liberal Yabloko, to the nationalist Patriots of Russia, are on the ballot and at least three of them are projected to pass the 7 percent hurdle they need to clear to enter the 450-seat State Duma.            

Though the commanding heights of Russia's media are state-controlled, and the pro-Kremlin United Russia party has been granted the lion's share of positive coverage, opposition parties have been able to get their message out. Perhaps most telling of all, as public opinion polls show UR's popular support slipping below the crucial 50 percent mark, there have been signs of sincere panic among top officials.

Speaking to a meeting of top UR apparatchiks last week, Putin urged them to redouble efforts to get out the vote Sunday, warning that loss of the parliament's pro-Kremlin majority could plunge Russia into a crisis similar to that currently shaking the European Union.

If UR loses control of the legislature "we would not be able to make the necessary decisions on time and could find ourselves at the line that our partners and friends in Europe have found themselves at," Putin said.

Elections are 'simply not honest'

Mr. Markov, and other pro-Putin politicians, argue that signs like this illustrate that Russian elections are essentially democratic, and that the choices made by voters will make a difference in the composition of power.

But opposition leaders, even those whose parties are represented on the ballot, offer a completely different picture. They describe a carefully stage-managed system in which candidate lists are winnowed by Kremlin apparatchiks, in which opposition politicians must scramble for tiny crumbs of media coverage, and local officials use a variety of heavy-handed tactics to contain their campaigns within tightly enclosed limits. Some warn that authorities may resort to large-scale vote-rigging on election day, as has been credibly reported in the past, if voters turn against the ruling party in decisive numbers.

"As a party, we are using all possible means that are available to us in an authoritarian state," says Grigory Yavlinsky, founder and head of Yabloko, a grass-roots liberal party that had a significant presence in the Duma until it was squeezed out in the first Putin-era parliamentary elections in 2003. "I doubt that any of our European colleagues, who are accustomed to working in democratic conditions, can imagine what we face in conditions of elections that are simply not honest."

Another liberal party, the pro-business Right Cause, imploded spectacularly in September, offering observers a brief but instructive glimpse into the system's inner workings. The party's leader and chief financier, industrialist Mikhail Prokhorov – who has since virtually disappeared from public life – angrily quit the party and publicly accused the Kremlin's chief political architect, Vladislav Surkov, of dictating permissible party candidates and political positions, and then orchestrating an inner-party mutiny against Prokhorov when he disobeyed.

Even the Communist Party, which is arguably Russia's only truly independent party, with substantial resources and a reliable social base, complains of being hemmed in on all sides.

"We are facing unprecedented pressure from the authorities, who are in a rage over their falling ratings," says Ivan Melnikov, the party's deputy chairman. "We spend most of our efforts trying to counteract their arbitrary actions. They don't allow us to distribute our literature, they remove our billboards, issue black propaganda newspapers against us ... the worst thing is the harassment of our candidates and their families, of our supporters, who are threatened with being fired from their jobs or suffering other kinds of (bureaucratic) problems."

But he adds: "This time we are seeing a lot more heroes who are standing up to the pressure. The idea that UR is an unstoppable force doesn't control peoples' minds anymore."

Do polls portend disaster for United Russia?

According to a survey conducted in early November by the independent Institute of Social Studies in Moscow, support for UR has fallen to a near-disastrous 32 percent. In the same poll, the Communist Party stood at about 15 percent, the pro-Kremlin nationalist party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky at 8 percent, the Kremlin-created left party Just Russia at just under 7 percent and Yabloko far behind, with about 2 percent.

"It's very hard to predict outcomes through social polling, because other factors like official pressure and possible falsifications can radically affect the results," says Vladimir Boikov, the Institute's director, who oversaw the survey. "In 2007 elections, our forecast was 48 percent in favor of UR, but the final result was 63 percent. But I cannot believe that this time UR will get more than 50 percent of the votes. The social mood is much tougher than it was last time."

Mr. Yavlinsky says that he understands Putin's popularity remains the main force driving politics in Russia, and he hopes that in years to come Putin will allow the system he built to accommodate gradual change.

"Over the past decade, living standards in Russia have grown four times over, which is an extraordinary record for any country," he says. "But at the same time, everything has been done to ensure that there are no alternatives within Putin's system of power. We need to work to change this, because neither Yabloko nor anyone else wants to see revolution in Russia. We already know that revolutions lead to nothing good."

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