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