Reader Steven Montgomery tips us to the following piece from the New York Times’ Russia correspndent exposing the sham nature of neo-Soviet elections. The Times reports:
Two candidates in local elections here in March, a soccer star and figure skating champion, have no known intention of giving up sports for legislative politics. If they win, as they almost certainly will, their Kremlin-friendly parties, not the voters, will choose the candidates to fill their seats.
An opposition party was kicked off the ballot for forging signatures but given little chance to prove otherwise. Government-controlled television has effectively barred parties except those loyal to President Vladimir V. Putin from the airwaves.
The elections here on March 11, like those in 13 other regions, will preview coming national elections in which voters’ choices will be severely limited at best. “Democracy?” asked Vladimir I. Fyodorov, a leader of the Communist Party here, which faces an uphill task of winning any seats to the city’s 50-member legislature. “I would not call the process under way in our country democracy.”
Here, as on the national level, Mr. Putin’s Kremlin has left little to chance or surprise.
At the Kremlin’s urging, Putin foes and independent analysts say, Parliament has raised the threshold for parties to win seats, eliminated minimum turnout requirements, abolished district elections in favor of party lists, and eliminated the option of voting “against all.” A new law on extremism would ban a candidate from criticizing his or her opponent, or anyone actually in office.
The Kremlin has also made it more difficult for political parties to form and register. According to officials, the Justice Ministry refused to qualify 15 of the 32 that applied last year, and other, largely inactive, parties faded into history.
That measure, like most of the others, has an ostensibly reasonable and democratic purpose: to simplify and clarify the rules of elective politics. To critics, though, the Kremlin has simply assured the smooth re-election of pro-presidential parties.
“It would be like if California had an election and only five Republican Parties could run,” said Maksim L. Reznik, head of the St. Petersburg branch of Yabloko, a liberal party.
The city election commission disqualified it after declaring that a sample of the 40,000 signatures on the party’s voter registration application contained forgeries. The party was given two days to disprove a handwriting expert’s conclusions by producing signed affidavits and copies of passports for hundreds of would-be voters.
By early February, with the elections barely a month away, Yabloko had also been barred from the ballot in two other regions, Orel in west central Russia and Leningrad, which surrounds St. Petersburg, in what party officials called an attempt by the Kremlin to weaken it further.
Another liberal party, the Union of Right Forces, was knocked off the ballot in Vologda, Pskov and Samara. The Communist Party faced challenges in several regions, including Tyumen and Dagestan, but ultimately qualified after protests.
In all, parties were denied registration in 17 instances. The only three parties that faced no problems were United Russia, Just Russia and the Liberal Democratic Party, all pro-presidential.
In Russia, as elsewhere, all politics is local. Yabloko’s leaders argue that their banishment here in St. Petersburg resulted from their opposition to the city’s governor, Valentina I. Matviyenko, a devoted supporter of Mr. Putin.
Yabloko’s three members in the city legislature were the only ones who voted against Mr. Putin’s reappointment of her as governor in December. They have also led a public challenge to plans by Ms. Matviyenko and Gazprom, the energy giant, to build a skyscraper on the banks of the Neva River.
Party officials and political analysts, though, have detected a national trend in the pressure on opposition parties. “They would like to reduce uncertainty as much as possible,” said Vladimir Y. Gelman, a political scientist at the European University at St. Petersburg.
The goal, he and others said, is to bolster United Russia, which now controls the lower house of Parliament and is called “the party of power,” by forcing out smaller parties like Yabloko. At the same time, the Kremlin hopes to create a loyal counterweight in Just Russia, a party created by the merger of three smaller parties and led by a staunch Putin supporter, Sergei M. Mironov.
“Just Russia is the only real opposition currently,” Mr. Mironov said recently, campaigning in the icy cold at a small park here, where he unveiled a new merry-go-round. “The others are just playthings.”
Oleg A. Nilov, the party’s regional chairman, acknowledged that political debate had withered in Russia since the emergence of United Russia. Just Russia, he said, will become a populist challenger, taking the side of the poor, the pensioners and the workers who have shared far less of Russia’s new energy-fueled boom than most. That stance, though, extends only to the local legislature and the lower house of Parliament, the State Duma.
“We are saying that on the level of the State Duma there should be real competition,” he said in an interview in the party’s headquarters, which displays large portraits of Mr. Putin. “The executive power exists on the next level.”
On that level, he added, “there should be unity.”
Vadim A. Tulpanov, the incumbent chairman of St. Petersburg’s legislature, dismissed criticism of Yabloko’s registration troubles, calling them self-inflicted. He said the election simply reflected the natural evolution of Russia’s young democracy, with the old parties like Yabloko and the Communists losing their popular appeal.
“Gradually in Russia, as I understand it, a two-party system is being created, like in America,” he said.
For now, the two main parties have distinct advantages: access to the airwaves, which are government controlled, and to campaign financing. Private donations to parties became risky after the prosecution of Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, the former chairman of Yukos Oil, after he openly supported political parties in the Duma.
A result of the uneven resources is visible on the streets here: posters and billboards of United Russia and Just Russia are ubiquitous, the others largely absent. Another advantage of incumbency has been the city’s refusal to allow Yabloko and other parties to hold protests or other rallies.
Roman S. Mogilevsky, a sociologist and pollster with the independent Agency for Social Information, said he found optimism in Russia’s development. “I don’t think there are many who are against elections,” he said, as though the question of holding them at all remained in doubt. “Even in the Soviet Union there were elections. The level of freedom, though, depends on whom you ask.”