- The Washington Times - Monday, December 8, 2003

Russia’s parliamentary elections have decimated the Communist and pro-Western opposition parties, leaving the real power struggle to be waged between the authoritarian and pro-reform factions inside President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin.

Nearly complete voting tallies yesterday indicated that the country’s two leading pro-Western parties had failed to meet the 5 percent minimum threshold for seats in the State Duma, the lower and more powerful house of parliament. The Communists, the Duma’s second largest party, lost about half their seats in the 450-member body.

Both the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Bush administration yesterday expressed pointed concerns about the elections, in which the state-owned press provided coverage heavily slanted in favor of candidates of United Russia, the party most closely tied to Mr. Putin.

While Sunday’s voting went smoothly, the pre-election “deficiencies” raised new doubts about “Russia’s willingness to move toward European and international standards for democratic elections,” said OSCE official Bruce George.

“It’s clear to us that administrative resources were widely used to assist pro-Kremlin parties,” added State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

United Russia, which ran a studiously vague campaign, won nearly half the seats in the Duma, and, together with likely leftist and nationalist allies, could command a two-thirds majority — enough to alter the nation’s constitution.

Cliff Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Nixon Center, said the vote confirms the concentration of power inside the Kremlin, with liberal reformers and more nationalist advisers — many of them like Mr. Putin former senior intelligence agents — battling for the president’s favor.

“Putin was powerful before the vote and will only be more powerful now,” Mr. Kupchan said. “It will be a much more nationalist Duma, one less interested in reform, but the real show in Russia will be inside the Kremlin.”

For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the leading pro-market, pro-Western parties will be virtually shut out of the Duma, victims of both Mr. Putin’s soaring popularity and their own failure to unite.

Sarah Mendelson, a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International studies, said: “Those who many in the West have relied on as friendly interlocutors have been replaced by gray men. There is little reason to think these new Duma deputies will promote the rule of law or market reform.”

Other winners in Sunday’s vote tally were ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose Liberal Democratic Party nearly nipped the Communists for second place with about 11 percent of the vote, and the new Motherland bloc, a leftist nationalist party seen by many as a Kremlin creation designed to siphon off votes from the Communists.

But with United Russia’s Duma leaders offering only a vague platform, the focus of most in Moscow yesterday was on Mr. Putin, who is preparing to run for a second four-year term as president in the spring.

Some warned that the overwhelming power now in the president’s hands will prove hard to handle, as Mr. Putin has relied in the past on pro-Western parties like Yabloko to help pass painful reforms.

Mr. Putin “cannot share the responsibility for his course any more with the right and right-centrist forces outside United Russia,” analyst Gleb Pavlovsky told reporters in Moscow.

But Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the Moscow-based think tank Panorama, said the vote clears the way for Mr. Putin to rewrite the constitution and stay in power indefinitely.

In an interview yesterday with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, he predicted, “If [Mr. Putin] proposes uniting Russia with China, he will have 300 votes [in the Duma]. If he wants to make Russia a state of the United States, he will also get 300 votes.”

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