Putin allies poised to strengthen grip on Duma

Russians go to polls today in parliamentary election

December 07, 2003|By Alex Rodriguez | Alex Rodriguez,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

MOSCOW - United Russia, the Kremlin-engineered amalgam of ministers, mayors and executives that has become Russia's dominant political force, had a simple reason last month for avoiding televised debates before today's parliamentary elections.

"We have nothing to debate and no one to debate with," said Boris Gryzlov, the party's leader and Russia's top law-enforcement official.

Critics would argue that he was wrong about the second part of his answer but right about the first. United Russia's platform has a single plank: loyalty to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. And that's enough for many Russians.

The staunchly pro-Kremlin party is poised to strengthen its grip on Russia's Duma, the lower house of Parliament, when Russians vote today. Polls show United Russia leading all other parties, several points ahead of its only serious challenger, the splintered Communist Party.

Today's contest was overshadowed, though, by the suicide bombing Friday that killed at least 40 people on a commuter train 100 miles west of Chechnya. Putin called the attack an attempt to disrupt the elections. "Russian citizens won't stand for this," he said.

Several Russian political analysts, meanwhile, have warned that the Kremlin could combine a strong United Russia showing with the right confluence of party alliances to give Putin a two-thirds legislative majority - enough to make constitutional changes and, if he wants, to run for a third presidential term. He is limited to two terms.

Even if he falls short of the two-thirds mark, Putin appears certain to come away from today's election with a stronger hand over a 450-seat legislative chamber that already is regarded as a rubber stamp for the Kremlin.

And in a year in which the Kremlin increasingly drew criticism for veering the country off the path toward democracy, that prospect has Russian liberals squirming.

The Kremlin "is skillfully using democratic instruments to turn Parliament into a branch of power subservient to the executive branch," said lawmaker Irina Khakamada, whose liberal Union of Right Forces Party is in danger of falling short of the minimum 5 percent support mark needed to secure official representation in the Duma.

The chamber's other leading liberal, Western-oriented party, Yabloko, might also fall short of 5 percent.

Half of the Duma's seats are doled out proportionately to parties that meet the 5 percent mark in the election. The rest of the chamber's members are elected individually from districts.

Today's election will be United Russia's first Duma contest. The party is the product of a merger between the Fatherland All-Russia Party and the Unity Party, which the Kremlin cobbled together just months before the 1999 parliamentary elections. Unity won 23 percent of the vote, second to the Communist Party's 24 percent.

Critics say United Russia has no guiding ideology and no charismatic legislator among its leaders, which is why many believe the party opted to steer clear of the debates. But in a country that felt rudderless during the chaotic reign of Boris N. Yeltsin, many Russians regard Putin's tenure as a refreshing return to stability and do not mind if democratic institutions are sacrificed.

"Democracy is not suitable for Russia," said Konstantin Abyzov, 30, a Moscow police officer. "I cannot say that democracy is totally wrong, but right now it's not the form of government that fits our needs."

When the campaign began, some analysts thought the two liberal parties - the Union of Right Forces and Yabloko - would have plenty of ammunition to wield against pro-Kremlin rivals. The Kremlin was denounced for the jailing of former Yukos Oil Co. chief executive Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky on tax evasion and fraud charges, a prosecution seen as politically motivated. Putin also has been harshly criticized for pushing new curbs on media election coverage through the Duma.

But liberal, democratic-minded arguments have failed to sway Russian voters. Most Russians hailed the arrest of Khodorkovsky, who like other so-called oligarchs obtained his wealth through the rigged post-Soviet sell-offs of state assets in the mid-1990s. The Union of Right Forces offered to unite with Yabloko to ensure representation, but squabbling killed the deal.

"The Yukos affair has garnered sympathy for Putin, because voters see that at last an oligarch has been put in jail," said Vladimir Pribylovsky, president of the Moscow-based Panorama think tank.

If the liberal parties are on their way out, Russia's fledgling Motherland Party might take their place. Led by former Communist Party lawmaker Sergei Glazyev and Putin ally Dmitri Rogozin, Motherland is regarded as pro-Kremlin and targets left-leaning, educated voters.

Success for Motherland today could nudge the Kremlin toward a constitutional majority, says Yulia Latynina, a political columnist with Russia's Novaya Gazeta newspaper.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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