United Russia not only ran its campaign as a referendum on Putin's policies, but it specifically introduced and popularized the concept of the "Putin Plan." This is an important point that is often overlooked. Seeking a broad mandate for Putin's Plan only makes sense if United Russia intends to strengthen the political weight of the parliament. By pledging to continue the multi-year budgetary and policy commitments that have been made under Putin, United Russia has committed itself to fulfilling those obligations regardless of who becomes the next president of Russia. It cannot be confident in its ability to do unless it significantly increases the Duma's role in the shaping of national policy.
Paradoxically, the strong public support shown for the Putin Plan makes it easier for Putin to remain on the sideline. Had the parliament been more evenly divided, he might have been needed to shore up support for critical votes, but now that will no longer be necessary. Nor do I believe, contrary to the conventional wisdom, that Putin has any interest in playing a strong role behind the scenes, which would clearly weaken his successor. I believe him when he says that he is most interested in promoting institutional stability in Russia. A weak president, or one who appeared so, would undermine all that he has worked for.
Having obtained such a convincing win on a platform with a very specific history, and a very specific agenda for the future, United Russia is now going to nominate as its presidential candidate someone who will make the same pledge to voters -- to stick to Putin's Plan for national recovery. This sort of "double investiture," where the populace gets to ratify it policy preferences twice, once for the executive and once for legislature, is a familiar feature of modern French politics. It is useful to recall that, as recently as the 1986 general elections in France, the same party dominated both, and there was much apocalyptic speculation about what a "cohabitation" of opposing parties might lead to for France. It turns out: "pas grand chose."
Over time, I would expect to see Russia's political system evolve in the same direction that the institutions of the Fifth Republic have evolved since the presidency of FranÃ§ois Mitterrand. This should hardly be surprising, since the French constitution served as the primary inspiration for the current Russian one.
Now that the results are official and, for the second time in eight years, the liberal opposition parties failed to gain even a single party-list seat in the Russian parliament, perhaps it is time for an honest discussion of why they so consistently fail to attract the support of the Russian public.
Granted, the country's booming economy does not make their argument for removing Putin an easy one--the latest IMF annual report says that, in terms of purchasing power parity, Russia's contribution to world growth in 2007 will be half as large as that of the entire European Union and much higher than Japan's.
Still, with a potential electorate as high as 40 percent, several well-known cultural and political figures in their corner and plenty of money from business elites to support their cause, it is simply astonishing how badly Putin's opponents have botched their case.
The roots of this latest electoral debacle, in which the liberal opposition lost more than half of their already small electorate, must can be traced back to the fateful decision made four years ago to forge some highly questionable political alliances.
In a misguided effort to gain publicity, moderates like Vladimir Ryzhkov, Irina Khakamada, Grigory Yavlinsky, Mikhail Kasyanov and Boris Nemtsov, embraced two highly controversial figures. The first was entrepreneur and chess champion Gary Kasparov who, as a member of the council of the U.S.-based Center for Security Policy, was known to have close ties to highly influential, as well as vociferously anti-Russian, American neoconservatives. The second is Eduard Limonov, leader of the rabidly ethno-nationalist National Bolshevik Party (NBP).
Limonov, who has called for the use of "Serbian tactics" to regain regions of the former Soviet Union with large Russian populations, is much more than an "accidental ally" of these liberals, as reported in the American press. He approached the group that spawned "Another Russia", the "Committee 2008: Free Choice", soon after it was established in March 2004, to recommend the expertise of his "fighters"--expertise like brandishing a fake grenade to occupy St. Peter's Church in Riga, Latvia, for which several NBP members served jail time. Limonov himself was convicted of illegal arms purchases in April 2001 and served two years in jail, before being released on parole.
So bad is Limonov that even the pugnacious leader of the far left "Working Russia", Viktor Anpilov, himself no stranger to confrontations with authorities, eventually could no longer stomach being part of "Another Russia." Its political agenda, he said, had become "basically to get out into the streets and brawl."
In American politics this sort of coalition would be as unthinkable as Al Gore and Bill Richardson forging an alliance with American chess legend Bobby Fischer and ex-Klansman David Duke. In the bizarre world of Russian opposition politics, however, Limonov, who was once labeled an extremist in the Wall Street Journal, has become a steadfast comrade-in-arms of Kasparov, now a contributing editor to the same newspaper!
While several former allies, including Yavlinksy and Kasyanov, have parted company with Another Russia, others like Kasparov, Ryzhkov and Nemtsov continue to justify this alliance as necessary to circumvent the Kremlin's control of the media.
But it is hard to believe that there are very many people in Russia who don't know what the opposition stands for. For one thing, more than a quarter of the population have regular access to the Internet, whose Russia domain remains totally politically unfiltered and heavily saturated with criticism of President Putin. 13 percent of the populace (twice that many in Moscow and St. Petersburg) even say that the Internet is their main source of information.
Moreover, even before the current election season, media surveys showed that the two leading liberal parties, Union of Right Forces (SPS in Russian) and Yabloko, received significant national television coverage. In 2005 they accounted for 23.8 percent of all times that political parties were mentioned on the country's seven major TV channels, while in 2006 this figure was only 14 percent. If this seems low, consider that it is far more than both parties combined have ever achieved in national elections.
When surveyed last year, by a nearly four to one margin Russians said that opposition parties were able to freely express their views on national television and in national newspapers. Even 56 percent of Communist Party voters agreed! None of this even takes account that during the past month--the official campaign season--each party running for the Duma received three hours of prime national television air time, and that the televised party debates, in which all parties except United Russia chose to take part, were watched by about the same percentage of people that watched the final U.S. presidential debates in 2000.
So while Kasparov contends that the only reason that the Russian people shun the liberal opposition is because of the regime's control over the media, Grigory Yavlinksy is probably much closer to the truth when he told a reporter that his liberal party Yabloko already has 97 percent name recognition. The problem is not that the opposition cannot get its message out to the Russian public. The problem is that the messengers have completely alienated their natural constituency: Russia's rapidly growing middle class.
Consider what a middle class voter would do if faced with the following choice: to support a political movement that unites a former chess champion with links to American neocons and whose family resides overseas; a former prime minister, popularly nicknamed "Misha 2 percent" for allegedly taking that much in kickbacks while in office; and an ex-punk rocker, released from prison just a few years ago, who vows to restore the Russian empire by any means necessary. The sum total of their political agenda: "A Russia without Putin!"
Or, to support the party of the current president, which has pledged to continue the policies that have already increased wages from $81 per month to $550 per month, dramatically increased social spending and reduced poverty from 27 percent to 15 percent. As any pollster will tell you, this is a "no-brainer."
But why run a campaign against the interests of the middle class? Perhaps some Russian liberals are just not aware of how much the country has improved economically. Earlier this year, Grigory Yavlinsky boasted to a reporter that he hardly reads the press anymore ("I have aides to do that") and hasn't watched Russian television in four or five years!
But these are minor public relations gaffes in comparison to the ill-concealed contempt for the Russian people to whom, ostensibly, they are appealing for support. As Boris Berezovsky, who claims to be funding the opposition from his exile in London, puts it: "The problem is that, for centuries, the Russian authorities have been violating the Russian people, turning it into cattle."
This bovine image of the Russian electorate is a favorite among the country's liberal elite. From Yuri Afanasyev's comment in 1991 that: "Many of our people seem reduced to a condition resembling that of cattle and, what is more frightening, they do not ask to live any other way", to the outrageous statements by former Deputy Prime Minister Alfred Kokh that Russians are incapable of earning money and "can't make anything new" (Kokh, by the way, then became the manager of the Union of Right Forces' 2003 Duma campaign). Cattle, obviously, need cattle herders, of which there seems to be no shortage among the Russian liberal opposition.
Their utterly cynical assumption that politics, at least in Russia, doesn't need to appeal to the voters at all, but is really about replacing the "bad" people-herders with "good" people-herders, has lead the opposition directly to the scorched earth policy that was adopted in the current Duma campaign. What does it matter how people vote, or even if they vote at all, for as Limonov vowed at the last Moscow rally before the elections, Another Russia does not intend to accept any results as legitimate.
Small wonder, then, that most Russians view the liberal opposition as simply wanting to take away the prosperity they have worked so hard to obtain? Nor is it any wonder that the Western media's uncritical adulation of this opposition, and of Another Russia in particular, is viewed by Russians with deep suspicion?
Far from indicating a retreat from democracy, the Russian electorate's decisive rejection of the current liberal opposition is a good sign that the country is progressing toward a mature democracy. Indeed, we can thank our lucky stars that the overwhelming majority of Russians have far too much common sense to vote for such extremists, even when disguised in "liberal" clothing.
Nicolai N. Petro is professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. He has served as special assistant for policy in the U.S. State Department, and as civic affairs advisor to the mayor of the Russian city of Novgorod the Great. His books include: The Rebirth of Russian Democracy (Harvard,1995), Russian Foreign Policy (Longman, 1997), and Crafting Democracy (Cornell, 2004).
His web site is: www.npetro.net