Vladimir Kara-Murza, writing on World Affairs:
Contrary to popular belief, not all Soviet bloc countries were one-party states. Some had “multiparty” systems, with the Communists formally sharing power with other political groups: People’s Party and Freedom Party in Czechoslovakia, Democratic Party and United People’s Party in Poland, the Christian Democratic Union and Liberal Democratic Party in East Germany. Indeed, the Socialist Unity Party did not even have an overall majority in the East German “parliament”, which was for years chaired by CDU politician Gerald Goetting. Needless to say, all “non-communist” parties faithfully towed their governments’ (and Moscow’s) line, for all intents and purposes serving as subsidiaries of the regime.
The system created by Vladimir Putin, who once served in East Germany, remarkably resembles this model. The Russian Duma comprises four parties: Mr. Putin’s United Russia (which controls 70 percent of seats) is joined by three “opposition” groups that have passed through the filters of the justice ministry and the central electoral commission. The presence of these groups that occasionally oppose government initiatives (deputies from Fair Russia apparently voted against the 2010 budget after a personal request from Mr. Putin) is meant to distinguish Russia’s legislature from its counterparts in North Korea or Turkmenistan. When it comes to issues sensitive to the Kremlin, however, the “parliamentary opposition” drops all pretenses, as was the case with the Duma’s 447 to 0 vote to recognize the “independence” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – a decision not only contrary to international law, but dangerous as an example to Russia’s own separatist-minded Caucasus regions.
The real opposition in Russia does not sit in the rubber-stamp “parliament” and has no access to state-controlled television. Its strength lies in the thousands of supporters willing to risk comfort and safety by openly protesting the authoritarian government. After the 12,000-strong anti-Putin rally in Kaliningrad in late January, the opposition held similar gatherings in Irkutsk, Archangel and Penza, and is now planning a nationwide protest for March 20. If the first two months are anything to go by, 2010 will be the year when anti-Putin forces go on the political offensive.
The Kremlin is understandably worried. Mass protests across Russia’s 11 time zones will seriously damage the regime’s image of “strength” and “popularity”. All stops are being pulled in an effort to disrupt opposition plans. Apart from the usual administrative methods, such as harassing activists and denying access to planned protest sites, the government decided to act through its satellites. Last week three “opposition” parties – the Communists, Fair Russia and Patriots of Russia – sent simultaneous directives to their regional affiliates prohibiting participation in the March 20 rallies organized by Solidarity, Russia’s leading pro-democracy coalition. The phrasing left the impression that the statements were drafted in the same Kremlin office: “prevent the participation… of charlatans and political crooks” (Communist Party), “alliance with the ‘young reformers’ of the 1990s… is impossible” (Patriots of Russia), “we do not share the ideology and methods of… [Solidarity leader] Boris Nemtsov” (Fair Russia). While unlikely to sabotage nationwide protests (regional party activists often act independently from the Moscow leadership), this desperate act shows the true nature of Russia’s pro-Kremlin “opposition”.
Last week, days after hosting the official delegation from the Russian Duma, members of the U.S. Congress welcomed Solidarity leader Boris Nemtsov. In his discussions with Reps. Howard Berman and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairman and ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Tom Price, Sens. John McCain, Mark Begich and Roger Wicker, Mr. Nemtsov presented an uncensored view of the situation in Russia and the rising tide of anti-government protests. Kremlin propagandists would have the outside world believe that its puppet “parliament” and its sanctioned “opposition” parties represent the full spectrum of views in Russian society. The Solidarity leader’s meetings on Capitol Hill are proof that the world knows better.