The End of Democracy

A decade ago Russia was on its knees. Today it is an energy giant in a world with an apparently unslakeable thirst for oil. As its wealth grows, so does Moscow’s desire to re-establish  itself  on the world stage. Overtures to Hamas, nuclear co-operation with Iran, and a sharing of Serbia’s concerns over Kosovo are just three areas where the Kremlin has been flexing its muscles.

Which is why Russia’s forthcoming elections matter. Voting in the parliamentary polls is set for Sunday December 2nd. At stake are 450 seats in the lower house of parliament, the State Duma. United Russia, which is the biggest party in the current Duma, will retain the lion’s share. The question is how large their majority will be, and what it will allow them to do.

President Putin has made two moves since the end of the summer which wrong-footed even most seasoned Kremlin-watchers. The first was to appoint Viktor Zubkov as Prime Minister. Moscow’s political class was taken by surprise. Those who had predicted that Mr Putin planned to return to the top job smiled smugly. Mr Zubkov’s emergence from obscurity fitted in perfectly with what you might call the “third man, third term” theory.

“Third man” because the candidate is someone other than the two men who have most frequently been spoken of as Mr Putin’s successor. They are Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev. Both currently hold the post of First Deputy Prime Minister. Both held on to their posts when Mr Zubkov’s cabinet was announced following his appointment as Prime Minister. So they could still be in the race, but from a weakened starting position. Mr Putin’s penchant for springing surprises means nothing can be completely ruled out.

“Third term” because, according to this theory, a political unknown suddenly appears centre stage. He receives Mr Putin’s endorsement as his favoured successor. That ensures his triumph in the presidential election in March. Then, perhaps having served one term, perhaps stepping down early on grounds of ill health, he makes way for Mr Putin.

Mr Putin’s second surprise fits in with this theory, too. He agreed to take first place on United Russia’s party list for the parliamentary election. That doesn’t mean he has to take up a seat in the Duma. It does mean United Russia’s share of the vote is likely to surge even higher. Opinion polls here credit Mr Putin with a popularity most politicians in the west can only dream of. Just being able to use his name guarantees a boost at the ballot box.

If United Russia get enough votes to deliver them more than two thirds of the seats in the new Duma, they will be able to vote through changes in the Russian constitution. They could perhaps use that to lengthen the presidential term from four to five, or even seven, years. Some officials and analysts close to the Kremlin have been preparing the ground for Vladimir Putin to stay around for a long time. “The Putin era is only just beginning,” is a phrase which has been heard more and more frequently over the last few months.

There even seems to be a special speech prepared for British journalists. President Putin’s possible return to power is compared to Winston Churchill’s comeback as Prime Minister. I first heard this from Sergei Stepashin – former head of the FSB (the main successor agency to the KGB) and, briefly in the 1990s, Prime Minister. Subsequently other sources have made the same comparison – apparently in an attempt to show that there’s nothing undemocratic in what’s going on.

It certainly feels unusual. Those media outlets who are less than totally loyal to the Kremlin have been reporting that a top official from the presidential administration spent part of the late summer touring the country. His trip involved chats with regional governors – supposedly instructing them which party should get what share of the vote in their area.

There have been changes in the election law which would seem to make any upset even less likely. A party now needs to secure seven percent of the vote to get any seats. Russians used to have the satisfaction of knowing they could vote “against all”. It was a permitted protest. That’s gone. The law stipulated that if enough people exercised this right, the ballot would be invalid. No one in the Kremlin wanted to take the risk of that happening. It seems inconceivable now that Vladimir Putin will somehow contrive to stand in March’s presidential poll. The way that things are shaping up, he can stay in power without doing so. He has hinted he might become Prime Minister – thereby perhaps biding his time until the presidential seat becomes free again.

It may not be that simple. Some observers here suggest that if Mr Putin has future presidential ambitions, he’s taking a huge risk by leaving office at all. Yes, in Mr Zubkov he has a possible presidential successor who is coming towards the end of his working life. Yes, the constitution permits Mr Putin to run again afterwards.

But the Russian system is strongly based around one man. So even if the next president is initially dismissed as a stop-gap, he might get other ideas once his feet are under the table. Russia is on the edge of uncharted territory. As one analyst close to the Kremlin pointed out recently, Russia’s tsars, and the general secretaries of the Soviet Communist party, died in office. When they stood down, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin both had approval ratings of around one per cent. To have a popular ex-leader still in the land of the living is something new.