Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Regional Elections Reinforce Disturbing National Trends

Paul Goble

Baku, March 5 – Elections for 11 regional legislative assemblies on Sunday reinforced all the trends of the all-Russian vote, a pattern highlighting the extent to which the party of power has taken control at all levels of the country and one that shows just how far Russia under Putin and now Medvedev has retreated from democracy.
Only a year ago, Tat’yana Stanovaya, the head of the analytic department of the Moscow Center of Political Technologies, writes in an analysis posted yesterday, elections at the regional level were far more competitive, with opposition groups doing far better there than at the all-Russia level (
But now, she says, United Russia, the Kremlin’s pocket political party, has moved to extinguish this competition, largely excluding from the competition at that level not only the marginal parties of the left and right but even larger groups like the Communist Party of the Russian Federation.
On Sunday, at the same time as voters across the Russian Federation went to the polls to confirm Dmitry Medvedev as the next president, the electorate in 11 subjects of the country – seven predominantly Russian oblasts and four non-Russian republics chose legislative assemblies.
Based on a close analysis of the returns from all of these, Stanovaya draws four conclusions, none of which will be encouraging for those who hope to see the Russian Federation toward democracy and all of which create the conditions for a future explosion, however superficially stable conditions there look now.
First, she notes, in these regional votes, the Kremlin’s party, United Russia, “increased its monopoly” on the use of administrative resources to control the voting and thus strengthened its “domination” of the outcomes.
In March of last year, other groups, such as Just Russia and the KPFR, were able to win a larger share of the vote in regional competitions than they had at the all-Russia level, but no longer. Now, United Russia “won” more than 50 percent of the vote everywhere, thus shifting political competition from between parties to within one.
Second, the number of parties competing at the regional level has fallen sharply over the last year. In March 2007, 11 parties competed in such votes. In December, five did so. But in this vote, only two “campaigned in more than one region” – the Civil Force in Sverdlovsk and Yaroslavl and APR in Sakha, Kalmykia and Yaroslavl.
Thus, Stanovaya writes, “one can say that overall of the 15 political parties which are registered with the authorities, only four parliamentary ones [continued to be active} in the elections” that took place in Sunday’s vote, as a result of “financial difficulties” and pressure from the ruling party.
Third, the Moscow commentator says, this means that the Kremlin has decided to exclude from “within system” competition not only the smaller, marginal parties, but even the larger groups like Just Russia, the KPRF, and LDPR, a decision that points to effective one-party rule across the country.
And fourth, she notes, Sunday’s vote confirmed the widely commented upon “crisis of the liberal opposition,” SPS and Yabloko, both of which failed to campaign in any serious way at the regional level, thus leaving the KPRF as the only real, if marginalized opposition group.
While Stanovaya does not go as far as some Moscow writers who are now speaking of “the death of the opposition” (, she does suggest that this extension of all-Russia trends to the regional level will only increase the ability of those in power to act without any effective supervision.
That in turn has two consequences which Stanovaya does not highlight but which in the coming months may prove even more threatening to the “stability” of Russia under the Medvedev-Putin tandem. On the one hand, it means that real politics will again take place -- as was the case in Soviet times -- largely out of public view.
And on the other, this development increases the likelihood that challenges to the Kremlin will come not from within system parties but rather from those now excluded, a pattern that means open politics now remains only at the local level and that any challenges to the Kremlin will be both “extra-systemic” and thus far more radical.

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