- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 10, 2003

The tectonic plate shift in Russian politics, which occurred in parliamentary elections last Sunday would make Russia diplomatically more prickly and less hospitable to foreign investment.

There are three winners and two losers in the elections. The greatest winner is President Vladimir Putin. His party, United Russia, has won 37 percent of the vote, and together with its allies has come close to muster a two-third majority necessary to change the constitution, including extending president’s term in office beyond 2008.

It is Mr. Putin’s poise and judgment in using his newly found parliamentary support and popularity, which will define his relationship with the West and his place in history. Mr. Putin’s resistance to virulent nationalism and populist socialism of his party’s hangers-on will make a difference between Russia’s progress and failure.

United Russia capitalized on three major developments: Mr. Putin’s wild popularity — up to 78 percent according to the International Republican Institute poll. It got a boost from a crackdown on corruption undertaken by Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov, who is the United Russia party leader, and is rumored to become speaker of the Duma or prime minister. Finally, it thrived on jailing of billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The majority of Russians perceive oligarchs as corrupt, thieving and detached from the impoverished masses and the struggling middle class.

The second and third winners, respectively, are socialist/nationalist newcomer Motherland and rabble-rouser’s Vladimir Zhirinovsky “Liberal Democrats.” Motherland, led by a former Communist Party economic guru Sergey Glazyev and the hard-liner former Duma Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Dmitry Rogozin, won 9 percent of the vote. Its message of nationalization at home and nationalism abroad, of high taxes and foreign adventures, are a sure-fire prescription to derail Mr. Putin’s proclaimed goal of doubling gross domestic product by 2010. Economic reformers in the Kremlin are disgusted.

Motherland was a creation of the Kremlin’s cunning consultants, who were tasked with stealing votes from the geriatric (and chauvinistic) communists. They succeeded — too well. However, just as Dr. Frankenstein, the Kremlin is horrified by its creation. Senior government officials recognize they don’t control Mr. Glazyev, and that the younger and feistier Motherland team in the Duma will be a nuisance than predictable and dumb communists who never learned the game of competitive politics.

Mr. Zhirinovsky, the third winner, doubled his vote to 11.6 percent. Before the elections he got in yet another televised fistfight and declared Chechnya should not be discussed in the media. Instead, he suggested using death squads to kill off entire Chechen villages. Today, when suicide bombers tear apart Moscow civilians almost weekly, tough guys finish first.

The big losers are, first, the democratic forces, and second, the business community. Union of Right Forces (URF), a center-right party, and Yabloko (“Apple”), a liberal-left party, failed to launch viable party structures around Russia’s 89 regions. They also had no new ideas to address its electorate’s needs. They lost votes to Mr. Putin’s United Russia, to Motherland, and to voter apathy. Turnout was 54 percent — 8 percent less than in 1999, when Yabloko and URF last got into the Duma.

As Mr. Putin has embraced United Russia and to some degree, Motherland, and government-controlled TV followed suit, the bottom dropped from under the democrats. Both Yabloko and URF were painted as too pro-Western, and insufficiently Russian. Center-right politicians appeared rich, spoiled and detached from ordinary Russians’ everyday woes. It also didn’t help that highly unpopular former privatization czar Anatoly Chubais has emerged as a de-facto leader of the center right. And the hated tycoons have poured support to the liberal forces who became viewed as their puppets.

As the statist and pro-Putin forces became stronger, the business community weakened. According to a Cabinet insider, big business should forget about dictating a legislative agenda in the Duma, as it did throughout in the “roaring ‘90s.” Two days after the elections, Mr. Putin signed a new law imposing additional energy export tariffs.

The Bush administration has a strategic interest in continuing dialogue with the Russian president, the government and the people. However, it has to strike a balance between defense of democracy, cooperation in the global war on terrorism, developing Russian energy resources, and encouraging foreign investment.

To achieve these goals, the Bush administration should express support to the democratic forces of Russia. The White House is right to endorse the statement of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), of which the U.S. is a member. The statement called the elections “unfair” and was highly critical of the government controlling all TV channels. More needs to be done, including expanding exchanges with Russia, providing support to democratic nongovernment organizations (NGOs), independent media, and nascent forces of freedom through the National Endowment for Democracy, International Republican Institute, and private foundations.

President Bush should communicate directly to Mr. Putin that to continue Russian integration in Western frameworks such as G-8 and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Russia needs to follow Western political models and boost the rule of law.

Finally, Washington needs to warn Moscow that further abuse of the legal system by the executive branch which leads to extrajudicial destruction of major economic players in Russia may result in shrinking of foreign investment, thus jeopardizing Mr. Putin’s stated goal of doubling GDP by 2010.

Russia has awakened with a Duma that is more nationalist and less democratic than before. It is in everyone’s interest that Russia pursues a civic society and free markets amidst political liberty. The U.S. and the West should not hesitate reminding Moscow about this.

Ariel Cohen is research fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Heritage Foundation.


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