September 18, 2007
Swapping Oligarchs For the West
Putting the oligarchs in their place was a theme of the State Duma campaign in 2003. Putting the West in its place is shaping up to be a theme this time.
The Duma campaign, which kicked off less than two weeks ago, is lurching toward absurdity with the weekend announcement that murder suspect Andrei Lugovoi will run for a seat with Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party.
Lugovoi, wanted by London in the poisoning death of former security service officer Alexander Litvinenko, denies wrongdoing, and Moscow refuses to extradite him. But rather than return to his quiet life of running a private security company, Lugovoi has been basking in the limelight, holding news conferences, attending high-society events and even signing autographs on the street.
Lugovoi is a man with a single message. He uses his public appearances to criticize the British government and London-based businessman Boris Berezovsky, whom he accuses of involvement in Litvinenko's death. His allegations echo the claims of prosecutors and Kremlin officials and get prominent coverage in the state media.
The rhetoric has struck a chord with the public.
A single-message strategy paid off handsomely in 2003. That year, Rodina swept into the Duma on a nationalist platform that called for a crackdown on businessmen who made their fortunes in the controversial privatizations of the 1990s. Rodina was formed just two months before the vote, apparently by senior Kremlin strategists hoping to steal votes from the Communists. But the party's campaign resonated among people fed up with the oligarchs, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky's arrest about a month before the elections provided substance to the rhetoric, winning over many voters.
Lugovoi could also pay off.
Russia, its treasury bulging with energy revenues, has been flexing its political, economic and military muscle for months, most recently with the resumption of strategic bomber flights and the testing of a bomb dubbed the Father of All Bombs. President Putin got the ball rolling in February with a tough, anti-Western speech in Munich.
Lugovoi's message on the campaign trail -- just as anti-Western -- would complement the Kremlin's line. It also should appeal to nationalist-minded voters under 40 -- the LDPR's target electorate. The LDPR positions itself as a nationalist opposition party, but it has faithfully backed the Kremlin line. This, among other things, suggests that the Kremlin has no objections to Lugovoi getting into politics. Zhirinovsky, who calls the charges against Lugovoi a provocation, has scored political points over the years with his anti-Western actions. He has called for Russia to confiscate Alaska from the United States, and he mocked the United States during visits to Iraq before the U.S.-led invasion.
Zhirinovsky and Lugovoi seem made for each other -- and for the Kremlin. Let the anti-Western rhetoric begin in earnest.