- The Washington Times - Friday, December 5, 2003

United Russia, a party closely tied to President Vladimir Putin and heavily salted with regional power barons, looks set to consolidate its grip on power in parliamentary elections tomorrow that could determine Mr. Putin’s political future.

But the campaign, in which United Russia has dominated the state-controlled media coverage while dodging candidate debates and difficult issues, hardly has proven an attractive advertisement for Russia’s fledgling democracy.

“It’s a big step backward,” said Anders Aslund, director of the Russian and Eurasian program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“United Russia has run basically a contentless campaign, whose only program is support for President Putin. Many rival candidates have been thrown out on the tiniest technicalities, and it looks as if the government is even faking the opinion polls in order to steal the election,” he added.

About 450 seats are up for grabs in the State Duma, the lower and more powerful house of Russia’s legislature. Half the seats will be decided in single-district votes, and the other half will be distributed proportionally, based on how each of the 23 parties fare in a separate voter-preference ballot.

The latest polls indicate that United Russia, which bills itself the “party of power” and whose party list is topped by Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov, a powerful Putin ally, will build substantially on its 142-seat Duma faction, with the Communist Party and its allies struggling to hold their 127 seats.

Ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the Liberal Democratic Party places third in the polls, but the country’s two best-known Western-oriented liberal parties — the Union of Right Forces and Yabloko — are struggling just to obtain the minimum 5 percent needed to retain their seats in the Duma.

The polls and recent special elections also point to rising voter apathy, reflecting the dreary level of debate in the campaign and the dominance of Mr. Putin and his allies.

“Many people are indifferent to the campaign because they think they already know the results,” Oleg Savelyev of the public opinion firm VTsIOM-A, told the Moscow Times last month.

Mr. Putin, whose approval ratings top 70 percent, will be on the ballot for a second four-year term early next year, probably in March.

Breaking with precedent and his own practice, the former KGB agent last month injected himself into the parliamentary race with a strong endorsement of United Russia, even addressing the party’s pre-election convention.

“United Russia was able to rise above populism while making responsible decisions and taking on responsibility,” Mr. Putin said in an unusual television interview late last month. Saying he needed a supportive legislature to push through his programs, Mr. Putin added, “If the Duma is competent, then the president will be able to do a lot together with the parliament.”

United Russia hopes to attract votes from one recent Kremlin action: the arrest of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

The prosecution of Mr. Khodorkovsky, one of Russia’s most prominent “oligarchs” and a financial backer of anti-Kremlin political parties across the ideological spectrum, has raised questions in Washington and in Europe about likely violations of judicial procedures.

But popular resentment against the small band of billionaires who made fortunes in the chaotic sell-off of state assets after the demise of the Soviet Union still runs deep, and United Russia party leaders have made pointed comments trying to tap into that anger.

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