Pro-Kremlin Party Sweeps Russia Elections

By Steve Gutterman
Published December 8th 2003 in The Guardian

MOSCOW (AP) - A sweeping victory by President Vladimir Putin's allies pushed liberal, Western-oriented parties out of parliament for the first time since the Soviet collapse, and the White House expressed concern Monday over the fairness of a vote human rights officials said marked a retreat from democracy in Russia.

The main pro-Kremlin party, United Russia, won nearly three times as many votes in Sunday's elections as its closest rival, according to preliminary results.

Its new power, together with the defeat of liberal parties and a surge by nationalists who have called for strong state control of the economy, raised questions about Putin's plans for what seems certain to be a second term following March presidential elections.

Putin, who has boosted the economy by introducing reforms but has been accused of stifling dissent and tightening control over the media, offered few hints of his plans for the future.

He promised to turn to the liberals for ideas and hinted some of their leaders might be recruited into the government - an effort to ease fears the Kremlin might roll back reforms.

But he also suggested the elections showed liberal views had little support among Russians, who gave most of their votes to parties that emphasized the importance of a resurgence of a powerful Russia rather than to concerns about democracy or rights.

``It is absolutely clear to me that these results reflect the real sympathies of the population,'' Putin said in a televised interview. ``They reflect what the people really think; they reflect the realities of our political life.''

Analysts said United Russia and its allies were angling for a two-thirds majority required to make constitutional changes - a lever they could use to extend Putin's term or let him run for a third term, provided the docile upper parliament house, Russia's regional legislatures and the president himself approve.

In a crushing defeat for liberal parties that have promoted economic reforms and advocated an open style of democracy, the Yabloko and Union of Right Forces fell short of the 5 percent vote needed to gain seats as parties in the State Duma, Russia's lower parliament house.

The once-formidable Communist Party also faltered, many of its former voters likely siphoned off by Homeland, a new apparently Kremlin-approved party whose leaders have assailed the West and shocked Russian business circles with their calls to crack down on rich tycoons, reverse post-Soviet privatization and trim oil exporters' profits.

Flamboyant nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, which nearly doubled the support it won in the last Duma elections in 1999, has faithfully supported the Kremlin in key legislative votes, despite fiery rhetoric.

United Russia - led by Cabinet ministers and packed with regional governors and state bureaucrats as well as stage and screen stars - has offered little in the way of a platform aside from its loyalty to Putin, and its commanding victory will place unprecedented power in the hands of the popular president.

Putin said the vote marked ``another step in strengthening Russia's democracy.'' But human rights officials decried the elections as free, but not fair, criticizing the heavy-handed employment of the state's levers of control to influence voters.

``Our main impression of the overall electoral process was ... one of regression in the democratization of this country,'' said Bruce George, head of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe.

George said the ``extensive use of the state apparatus and the media the benefit of United Russia created an unfair environment for the other parties and candidates.''

In Washington, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the United States shares the OSCE's concerns about the fairness of the election campaign.

The state's use of its influence in the elections was part of the ``negative trend of ... managed democracy,'' said Michael McFaul, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. ``Whether we should continue to call it democracy I don't know. I am less and less confident that one should.''

With nearly 98 percent of the ballots counted, United Russia had 37.1 percent of the vote, Central Election Commission chairman Alexander Veshnyakov said - the first time since the Soviet collapse that the main pro-Kremlin party has won more votes than any of its rivals.

The Communist Party scraped to second place with 12.7 percent, while the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia had 11.6 percent and Homeland had 9.1 percent, according to preliminary results. Yabloko won 4.3 percent and Union of Right Forces had 4 percent, Veshnyakov said.

Veshnyakov said turnout was 56 percent, down from 62 percent in 1999, and nearly 5 percent of the electorate checked the box marked ``against all.''

Mark Urnov, chairman of the Expertise Foundation, a Moscow think tank, said the elections marked a shift away from open democracy and a move toward a Soviet-style system.

``I don't rule out that in this atmosphere, ideas about strengthening power may arise,'' he said on Echo of Moscow radio.

Half the Duma seats will be distributed proportionately among the parties winning more than 5 percent of the nationwide vote, while the other 225 seats will be filled by the winners of individual district races, who may or may not be affiliated with a party.

The full extent of the Kremlin's power over the lower parliament house will not be clear until after results from those races is known.

While Putin has repeatedly said Russia's future is in partnership with the West, he has often spoken out defiantly against the United States and the European Union.