Russian Duma Elections

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Russian Duma Elections

December 12, 2003 4 min read
Ariel Cohen
Ariel Cohen
Former Visiting Fellow, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center
Ariel was a Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy at The Heritage Foundation.
The tectonic political shift that occurred in Sunday's parliamentary elections will make Russia more difficult diplomatically and less hospitable to foreign investment. The biggest winner was President Vladimir Putin, whose United Russia party won 37 percent of the vote and, together with its allies, has close to the two-thirds majority necessary to change the constitution, including extending the president's term in office beyond 2008.

United Russia capitalized on three major developments:

  • Putin's popularity--up to 78 percent according to an International Republican Institute poll.
  • The crackdown on corruption undertaken by Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov--the party leader and rumored next speaker of the Duma or prime minister--and the jailing of billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, which appealed to the vast majority of Russians who view oligarchs as corrupt and detached from the impoverished masses and the struggling middle class.
  • The use of "administrative resources," including government-controlled television and provincial governors' guidance, to boost United Russia candidates.

Putin's judgment in using his new parliamentary support and popularity will define both his relationship with the West and his place in history. His resistance to the virulent nationalism and populist socialism of his party's hangers-on will make the difference between Russia's progress and failure.

The Other Winners. The second and third winners were, respectively, the socialist/nationalist newcomer Rodina (Motherland) and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democrats. Led by former Communist Party economic guru Sergey Glazyev and former Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Dmi-try Rogozin, Motherland won 9 percent of the vote. Its message of nationalization at home and nationalism abroad, high taxes, and foreign adventures is a prescription for derailing Putin's goal of doubling GDP by 2010.

Motherland was a creation of Kremlin consultants who were tasked with stealing votes from the ultra-nationalist communists. They succeeded--too well. Senior government officials recognize that they do not control Glazyev and that the younger, feistier Motherland Duma team will be more of a nuisance than the predictable communists, who have not learned the game of competitive politics.

Zhirinovsky, the third winner, doubled his vote to 11.6 percent. Before the elections, he got into yet another fistfight in a television studio and declared that Chechnya should not be discussed in the media. Instead, he suggested leaving it to the secret police and using death squads to kill off entire Chechen villages. He called for establishing a monarchy but would settle for an elected czar--President Putin. Today, when suicide bombers tear apart Moscow civilians almost weekly, the tough guys finish first.

The Losers. The big losers are the communists (whose 12.7 percent was half of the vote they received in 1999), democratic forces, and the business community. The center-right Union of Right Forces (URF) and liberal-left Yabloko (apple) failed to launch viable party structures in Russia's 89 regions. Without new ideas to address the electorate's needs, they lost votes to Putin's United Russia, Motherland, and voter apathy. Turnout was 54 percent--8 percent lower than in 1999 Duma elections.

As Putin embraced United Russia and, to some degree, Motherland and the government-controlled television followed suit, the bottom dropped out from under the democrats. Yabloko and URF were painted as too pro-Western. Center-right politicians appeared rich, spoiled, and detached from the ordinary Russian's everyday problems. The emergence of Anatoly Chubais, the highly unpopular former privatization czar, as a de facto leader of the center-right did not help; nor did the extensive support of the hated tycoons.

As the statist and pro-Putin forces became stronger, the business community weakened. According to a cabinet insider, big business should forget about dictating the legislative agenda in the Duma as it did throughout the 1990s. Two days after the elections, Putin signed a new law imposing additional energy export tariffs. Raising taxes on energy exports is being discussed even as cheap Russian oil and gas for domestic consumption provide a multibillion-dollar subsidy for the Russian economy, imperiling Russian membership in the World Trade Organization.

The Appropriate U.S. Response. The Bush Administration has a strategic interest in dialogue with Russia's president, government, and people. However, the U.S. needs to strike a balance between fighting the war on terrorism and defending Russian democracy, supporting Russian integration with the West, developing Russian energy resources, and encouraging foreign investment in Russia. To achieve these goals, the Administration should:

  • Express support for Russia's democratic forces. The White House has endorsed the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's statement, which called the elections "unfair" and criticized the government's control of the country's television channels. More needs to be done, including expanding exchanges with Russia and providing support to democratic non-governmental organizations, independent media, and nascent forces of freedom through the National Endowment for Democracy, International Re-publican Institute, and National Democratic Institute.
  • Communicate directly to Putin that continued integration into Western frameworks such as the G-8 and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development depends on Russia's following Western political models and boosting the rule of law.
  • Warn that further executive branch abuse of Russia's legal system, leading to the destruction of major economic players, could discourage foreign investment, thus jeopardizing Putin's stated goal of doubling GDP by 2010.

Conclusion. Russia now has a Duma that is more nationalist and less democratic. While emerging democracy is often a two-steps-forward, one-step-back proposition, it is in everyone's interest that Russia pursue civic society, free markets, and political liberty. The U.S. and the West should not hesitate to remind Moscow of this.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.


Ariel Cohen
Ariel Cohen

Former Visiting Fellow, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center