Saturday, December 01, 2007

Russia's barely democracy

It has been clear in the years since Vladimir Putin became President, that Russia is slipping back to authoritarianism. It isn't quite the totalitarian terror of Marxism-Leninism, but something halfway - whereby there is some free speech, there is some private sphere but you daren't think about seriously threatening the incumbents.
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Putin has been variously sabre rattling, being friendly with bullies to the east and south, and been trying to flex Russia's muscles, largely fueled by the high prices of oil and gas. Many Russians have benefited from this, from the wealthy to a growing middle class.
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However, Russia has moved from the substantial freedom of the late 1980s and most of the 1990s, to controlled speech and media. In the last parliamentary elections in 2003, the party of Putin- United Russia - gained a plurality with around 37.6% of the vote. With 70 seats out of the 450 largely held by independents loyal to Putin, United Russia commanded a clear majority.
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This time, the entire system has moved to proportional representation - because, you see, it clears out lots of small parties. The threshold for entering the Duma will be 7%, given only 4 parties crossed that in 2003, you can see what's going on. In 2003, the two main opposition parties to United Russia were the Communists and the Liberal Democratic Party - the latter being a fascist nationalist party (remember Vladimir Zhirinovsky?). The most promising ones (by any measure of support for Western values) - Yabloko and Union of Right Forces - only won 4 and 3 seats respectively last time.
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So this time the contest looks like a foregone conclusion. State TV is overwhelmingly biased in favour of Putin and United Russia, and Gary Kasparov - who led a coalition of parties of left and right against Putin - is now in prison for leading an illegal march. Because, of course, he would have been allowed had he applied for permission! United Russia refuses to participate in TV debates with other parties
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The Daily Telegraph reports "there are widespread stories of intimidation and planned ballot rigging. University professors, factory bosses and teachers claim to have been forced to vote for or join the party or face dismissal. Students claim to have been threatened with expulsion if they do not do the same. Regional governors not trusted to secure a sufficient share of the vote for United Russia have been removed."
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Although it also reports that even in a free and fair election, United Russia may still win. However, it is aiming for more than that. It wants 70% of the vote, so it can change the Constitution, allowing Putin to remain President, although he is at the top of the United Russia party list so he could become Premier as well.
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So should we fear Russia? Probably not. For now, almost all of its economy is based on fossil fuels - when prices slide back down, then there is little else left. Technology, services and manufacturing remain at a low level. It could well be the mine for China, but it is an expensive mine to operate given the climate, territory and infrastructure. Secondly, its population is in steady decline, falling at around 0.5% per annum. 15 years ago it had the 8th largest economy in the world, now it is 11th. Its rusty armed forces cannot project far, although it still has nuclear capabilities these probably have a serviceable life of about another 10 years at best - realistically speaking Russia will be confined to defending its borders within a generation. So no, it is unlikely to be a threat over the longer term, but this is sad
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Meanwhile, pity Russians who had their taste of freedom and largely don't want it anymore. Unfortunately, the whole country is generations behind western Europe in having relatively low corruption, transparent politics and bureaucracy - the best hope to change that remains the examples on its borders. Sadly, with the exceptions of Finland, Poland and the Baltic States none are much of an example, and plenty are the opposite (Belarus, Kazakhstan).
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So on Sunday hope that enough Russians will vote in enough number to ensure the gerrymandering doesn't give United Russia an overwhelming majority. While you're at it, buy a lotto ticket - you might have better odds.

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