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The New Russia By: Reuben F. Johnson
The Weekly Standard | Thursday, January 24, 2008

EXCLUDING THE LITTLE more than symbolic access to the political process granted to a few small opposition groups, the pro-Kremlin United Russia party has assumed a monopoly on the Russian political sphere much like that enjoyed by the old Communist party of the Soviet Union. It is widely expected that Russian President Vladimir Putin will assume some senior position in this party, if not as its general secretary, once the Russian presidential elections are held in March and his hand-picked successor, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, assumes the presidency.

Medvedev, who is expected to cruise to an easy victory since there are no other credible candidates, has also already asked Putin to be his prime minister, which effectively leaves power in the hands of the same individuals that are running the country now.

The old saying is that "absolute power corrupts absolutely," but when this is played out in the new Russia--supposedly governed by a "dictatorship of the law"--everyone tries to get in on the action.

It was announced on January 14 that two senior United Russia officials were dismissed over "possible" financial fraud linked to Medvedev's presidential campaign. Sergei Zhiltsov and Vladimir Barinov, members of the party's executive committee, are suspected of "financial machinations" for posting requests for campaign contributions to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) friendly to the first deputy PM.

Normally, soliciting campaign contributions is not considered a crime, but the problem with these letters was that they all went out before Medvedev had officially registered as a candidate. Asking for money for a person who has not even yet announced his candidacy would have left the money collected in a dubious legal status--as in it could have been taken and spent however the persons collecting it were inclined.

Calls to Zhiltsov's United Russia office went unanswered Monday. United Russia has since revised its entry rules for new applicants, said the head of the party's executive committee, Andrei Vorobyov, in a story in the Moscow paper Vedomosti. As of now some previous participation in party activities--such as making donations or membership in a professional union--and an interview will be among the new requirements.

But one does wonder just why a man with Medvedev's personal wealth cannot afford (ala Mitt Romney) to be self-financing. His need for any substantive campaign expenditures also remains a mystery. None of the other candidates who are running will receive any significant coverage from the Kremlin-controlled media, leaving no apparent rationale for Medvedev to buy advertising in the first place.

Another Moscow paper, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, reported the day after the United Russia scandal that the Russian central television channels are already giving "complete supremacy" to Medvedev and have marginalized the other presidential candidates. The paper's count was that the main channels mentioned Medvedev 344 times during the two week period that ended 13 January. The leader of the nationalistic Liberal Democratic party of Russia, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, was second with 96 references. (Zhirinovsky is not considered to be a serious candidate and his party almost always backs the actions of the Kremlin, so he does not really qualify as an "opposition" candidate. Hence the mention of his name rather frequently compared to the other candidates running against Medvedev.)

Medvedev received 12 hours of media coverage in this same period. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, who came close to unseating former President Boris Yeltsin in 1996, was given only two hours. Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who is considered one of the only serious opposition candidates, was heard on state television only two times during the two-week period compared to 172 appearances for Medvedev.

Other candidates who had been running for the March 2008 balloting have since dropped out, namely former First Deputy PM Boris Nemtsov, on the grounds that participating in such a blatantly undemocratic election with a pre-determined outcome only lends credibility to a process that does not deserve it. Nemtsov had encouraged Kasyanov to drop out as well, but on Thursday the former PM delivered boxes of the required 2 million signatures needed for registration as a presidential candidate to the Central Election Commission.

Kasyanov has vowed to stay in the race at all costs. "People sharing this attitude are urging me to go to the end. This is a great responsibility, and I cannot drop my decision now. Therefore, I will not quit," he said to the Russian Interfax news service.

In another example of Russia's regression to its Soviet past, while registration of a presidential bid is still theoretically possible, the obstacles to doing so are nearly insurmountable. A candidate must have a vast infrastructure in place and stretching across the country in order to collect the required petition signatures. Candidates have only one month to collect these signatures (an average of almost 70,000 per day) and no more than 50,000 signatures can come from any one of the country's 85 regions.

Not surprisingly, a democracy monitoring NGO based in the United States, Freedom House, states this week that freedom and democratic practices in Russia have gone "from bad to worse" in 2007. According to the group's statistical rating, Russia citizens now enjoy the same level of freedom as persons do in Angola, Egypt and Tajikistan.

Freedom House groups nations into one of three categories: free, partly free, and not free. Russia has been in the "Not Free" column for several years, but Freedom House states that the situation has deteriorated further, as typified by the abuses that took place during the State Duma elections late last year.

"One can't ignore the almost blanket inability of alternative voices to find their way into the news media," said Freedom House's Christopher Walker told the Moscow Times in a recent interview. "If they do, it's often in a jaundiced fashion, with them being portrayed negatively."

The Freedom House report categorizes Russia as belonging to the group of several "energy-rich dictatorships," (the same club Iran and Venezuela belong to) that leverage their oil wealth "to negative effect on their smaller neighbors."

Not surprisingly, the response from Moscow has been another blast from the Soviet past.

In an interview that the late Senator Daniel Moynihan gave to New Yorker correspondent Jeffrey Toobin in1999 he said that "Hannah Arendt had it right. She said one of the great advantages of the totalitarian elites of the Twenties and Thirties was to turn any statement of fact into a question of motive." This perfectly characterizes the response by one of Russia's leading political analysts, Sergei Markov, who is also now a newly-elected Duma member and one of the select few talking heads with the Kremlin's blessing to push the party line to the Western press.

"You can listen to everything they say, except when it comes to Russia," said Markov to the Times. "There are many Russophobes there."

History has gone full circle now. The days of foreign tourists to Russian being inundated with propaganda like the old Cold War-era polemical pamphlets entitled "Who Profits From Telling Lies About The Soviet Union" cannot be far off. In the meantime, the pantomime of a presidential race, and an ever intensifying scramble among those who want to dip their hands into the money till, go on. The question for the future is what will happen when the crowd in power in Moscow can no longer depend on $100 per barrel oil prices to shore up their popularity.

Reuben F. Johnson is a regular contributor to both THE DAILY STANDARD and THE WORLDWIDE STANDARD.

Reuben Johnson is a regular contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.

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