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Faustian Bargains: Opposition Parties Must Carefully Stay in Bounds in Order to Remain in the Election Hunt

File Photo of Duma Building
file photo
In the upcoming elections in Russia, heavy pressure is expected from the top echelons of United Russia and the Kremlin to produce a landslide victory for the leading party in the regions. At the same time, the country's systemic and non-systemic opposition parties face a conundrum: recognizing that powerful circles in the Kremlin have a strong influence over which parties make it into the Duma and in what numbers, they must find a way to come to terms with the Kremlin while trying to maintain an independent image. The State Duma is widely seen as a rubber stamp for the president's (or prime minister's) whims, but in an unusually candid speech on November 18 on the Duma floor Just Russia Deputy and Deputy Chairman of the Duma Security Committee Gennady Gudkov railed against preparations in the Kremlin to manufacture the parliamentary vote this December. Citing 2.6 million absentee ballots that he said would give individuals multiple chances to cast their vote, he added: "Nowhere in the world have such dirty methods been thought up. Whoever is doing this is pushing the country toward extremism and collapse." "That was probably the first time that we've heard something like that in the Duma before," said Masha Lipman, a political analyst from the Carnegie Center.

The statement was particularly impressive because, as analysts note, members of the "systemic" opposition, or those parties represented in Parliament, remain heavily pressured by the leading party to avoid sharp criticism of the electoral process. "In terms of what United Russia expects from the systemic opposition, it isn't so much about what they do during the campaigns, but what they're expected to do once they are in the Duma," added Lipman.

Behind-the-scenes political machinations are nothing new in Russia. After a period of intense political competition in the early 1990s, a group of oligarchs headed by Boris Berezovsky came to the rescue of a floundering Boris Yeltsin campaign to stave off the communists in 1996. Since Untied Russia's rise to power during Vladimir Putin's presidency, Gudkov claimed that the authorities had learned to employ a "cocktail" of election techniques in different regions to ensure strong United Russia showings there. "As they said during Stalin's time, it's not important who votes, but who counts the votes," said Alexei Mukhin, the head of the Center for Political Information. "Each of the parties has its representatives in the voting commission, but United Russia is the leading party ­ it can exert considerable influence over them."

Other analysts argued that the conclusion of agreements has lead to opposition parties toning down their criticism of United Russia and avoiding using Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev's names. Pavel Salin, a political expert for the Center for Political Assessments, said that the evidence of voter manipulation in this and past elections showed that theories on agreements between parties were "far from a conspiracy theory." In particular, he noted that sudden changes in Just Russia and the sudden softening of its tone toward the Kremlin had been evidence of an agreement made between itself and Untied Russia.

The most direct charges about the Kremlin's monopoly over party politics were voiced in mid-September, when oligarch and one-time Right Cause leader Mikhail Prokhorov railed against First Deputy Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov, whom he called a "puppet master." "There is a puppet master in this country, who long ago privatized the political system, who for a long time has been misinforming the country's leadership about what is happening with the political system, who puts pressure on the press, drives people apart and tries to manipulate the citizens and their opinions. His name is Vladislav Yuriyevich Surkov," said Prokhorov.

As Surkov's profile has risen in the public press, his biographers have not been kind to him, yet Surkov rarely gives interviews or puts himself in the public spotlight. English-language profiles, like in the New York Times, have fed speculation on Surkov's role as the "gray cardinal" of the Kremlin. Peter Pomerantsev, who published one of the more original profiles of Surkov by looking at the novel "Almost Zero," which Surkov likely penned anonymously, described the political arena created by Surkov as one of "despotism and postmodernism." "This is the world Surkov has created, a world of masks and poses, colorful but empty, with little at its core but power for power's sake and the accumulation of vast wealth. The country lives by the former wannabe theater director's script," Pomerantsev wrote.

Yet, according to analysts, rather than becoming more elaborate, recent United Russia scandals show that the party is becoming bolder and less creative in its control of the electoral process. "At this point, I think they've stopped trying to put up the same façade that they did before," said Lipman.


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