After four years as a member of St Petersburg’s legislative assembly, Sergei Gulyaev was packing up. Boxes, files and a 2007 calendar showing him in a moody leather jacket – all were being carted out of his office. Last month Gulyaev failed to win re-election to the city’s assembly. The local elections in 14 regions across Russia were a rehearsal for parliamentary elections in December and for next year’s presidential poll.
But the end of Gulyaev’s political career had little to do with the voters. In December he and two colleagues voted against a decision by President Vladimir Putin to reappoint a staunch loyalist as St Petersburg’s governor. Forty-seven other deputies voted in favour.
The Kremlin’s revenge was swift. Before the election the city’s electoral commission kicked Gulyaev and his liberal Yabloko party off the ballot paper. Despite all evidence to the contrary, it claimed that 34 signatures on an election petition had been forged.
Liberal voters in St Petersburg were left with nobody to vote for. To no one’s surprise, the two pro-Kremlin parties came first and second, leaving the new assembly without dissenting voices. “The decision to stop us standing was revenge for our position,” Gulyaev said. “There is no democracy in Russia. There is de jure democracy. But in reality it doesn’t exist.”
Seven years after Putin took over as president from an enfeebled Boris Yeltsin, Russia has gone back, critics say, to the classic authoritarian model of the state that flourished under the tsarists and the communists.
The accidental anarchy of the Yeltsin era – when TV stations were free to portray the leader as an occasional drunk – has disappeared. Instead Putin, a former KGB agent, has clinically restored the old system of Russian authoritarianism: critics of the president mysteriously fail to appear on television; courts eagerly anticipate the Kremlin’s wishes; the killers of troublesome journalists are rarely caught.
The tiny opposition compares Putin’s Russia to Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union in the mid-1970s, another golden economic period characterised by high oil prices and a strongly “personalist” regime. “Of course we can always find some differences with Soviet times, the Brezhnev time or the tsarist times. But on the whole what has happened in Russia is a classic restoration of authoritarianism,” said Vladimir Ryzhkov, one of a handful of independent MPs left in Russia’s duma (parliament). “It’s a restoration in several aspects. It’s a restoration of the traditional Russian model of the state, society and political system and of rhetoric in Russian-western relations.”
As with Gulyaev, Ryzhkov’s political career is almost over. Last month the supreme court liquidated his liberal Republican party on the grounds that it had too few members. Ryzhkov says he lugged five boxes into court proving that the party had 58,000 members. The court ignored this evidence, he says.
The ruling follows numerous changes by the Kremlin to the electoral system. Putin has abolished elections for provincial governors – he now appoints them. He also imposed Moscow’s control over local budgets. Under the latest rules of the game, political parties must have 50,000 members and be represented in half of Russia’s provinces.
The old mixed constituency and list system has been replaced by a list-only system, making it impossible for popular independent local candidates to stand again as MPs. The hurdle for parties to win seats in the duma has gone up from 5% to 7% of the overall national vote. With fewer Russians voting, the minimum 25% turnout rule has disappeared. Moreover the Kremlin has invented a social democrat-style “opposition” party called A Just Russia, which competes for votes against Putin’s ruling United Russia party. But both parties patriotically support the president, while maintaining the illusion of democratic rivalry. A Just Russia also takes away votes from the communists and nationalists. Kremlin political theorists describe this form of politics as “managed democracy”.
The effect of these changes will be to kill off the country’s few genuinely independent political actors, critics suggest. Even before anyone has gone to the polls, the shape of the next duma is widely known. It will be made up of four parties: United Russia, A Just Russia, the ultra-nationalists and the communists.
“Either you are part of the game or part of the pseudo-opposition, where you co-operate with the Kremlin guys and never touch Putin – or you can’t participate in politics,” Ryzhkov said. His assessment of Putin’s Russia is bleak: “Almost all the results of perestroika and democratisation have been killed.”
But there are growing signs that the Kremlin’s attempts to micro-manage the elections and ensure the smooth transition of power from Putin to a hand-picked successor are not going quite as well as they might.
The trouble started in St Petersburg, Putin’s backyard and where he grew up. Last month Gulyaev led 5,000 demonstrators down Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s central boulevard. The avenue finishes at the Neva river and the Hermitage museum, the tsar’s former palace and the scene of an uprising by another angry group, the Bolsheviks, in 1917.
The protesters included representatives from all the main opposition parties: Yabloka, Garry Kasparov’s United Civil Front, the National Bolsheviks and the Popular Democratic Union. They included hundreds of locals, fed up with rising prices, corruption and the lack of electoral choice. Some people were also unhappy about plans to construct a giant tower for the state-owned energy firm Gazprom in St Petersburg.
It was the largest anti-Putin demonstration the country has seen. Protesters blocked traffic for two hours. Police arrested 113 people. The size of the march appears to have surprised and rattled the Kremlin. Last month authorities in Nizhny Novgorod crushed a similar demonstration, detaining dozens of activists before they had a chance to assemble in the city’s Gorky Square.
Further anti-Kremlin demonstrations are planned in Moscow and St Petersburg. This month opposition leaders will meet to agree on a unified candidate to stand in the presidential election in March next year.
State-run television channels have reported none of this. Since 2001 the Kremlin has enjoyed a monopoly on state-run television, the main source of information about society for 85% of Russians. The situation in the print media is mixed. While most publications take a pro-Kremlin line, Russia has four relatively independent newspapers, including Kommersant and the respected business daily Vedomosti. There is also a liberal radio station, Echo Moscow. Collectively, however, these reach only a tiny audience.
The government dismisses western accusations that the country is backsliding on democracy as a “misperception”. Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s chief press spokesman, said: “We are convinced this is wrong. Russia has come a tremendous way in 15 years from a one-party totalitarian regime to a multi-party democracy with free elections and a free press.”
He dismissed the idea that Yabloko’s failure to take part in the St Petersburg elections was due to sinister government forces. “It wasn’t a plot by the Kremlin. There are laws in this country. You have to perform certain formalities to participate in elections. They failed to do that.” The authorities had taken a tough line on recent pro-democracy marches because of the “threat of extremism”, he added.
Most political observers believe that the regime is impregnable, especially when world gas and oil prices remain high. They point out that Putin enjoys broad support. “One fact about the contemporary Russian situation is that the majority or a plurality of the population supports the current president. The majority isn’t very much. But 55-57-58% express their trust in Putin personally,” said Russia’s leading election expert, Dr Grigorii Golosov, a professor of politics at St Petersburg’s European University. “But judging from recent elections, only 31% of the population is prepared to vote for United Russia. Plurality support is definitely there.”
Nobody believes that St Petersburg, the scene of uprisings in 1905 and 1917, is on the brink of another one. “We don’t want a revolution,” Gulyaev says. “We merely want free political debate in the media and the guarantee of participation in the elections. These are fundamental things.”