On Monday, during his meeting with leaders of the seven registered political parties, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev signed decree number 1124, calling parliamentary elections for December 4. Between ten and thirty days from now, parties must hold their conventions and nominate candidates for the State Duma (by way of nationwide lists). The four parties currently in the Duma—United Russia, Just Russia, the Communists, and LDPR—are placed on the ballot automatically; the three remaining groups—Yabloko, Patriots of Russia, and Right Cause—must collect at least 150,000 signatures by October 19 in order to be registered.
At the meeting, Medvedev—his political enforcer, Vladislav Surkov, by his side—announced that the last few years have seen an “improvement in the quality of our democracy” and the creation of “additional guarantees for honest political competition.” In Medvedev’s words, he is hoping that “the composition of our future Duma would reflect … the political preferences of the widest circles of our citizens, the diversity of their views, positions, and interests.”
In fact, the “political preferences of the widest circles” will not be represented not only in the future Duma, but on the ballot itself, which will include fewer than half of Russia’s existing political parties. In recent years, nine opposition parties—from the socialist United Labor Front to the nationalist Great Russia and the pro-Western, liberal Popular Freedom Party—were denied registration. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the Russian government’s approach to party registration was “unjustified” and “disproportionate,” but Russian officials have ignored the court’s decision. Earlier this month, a government representative told the Popular Freedom Party’s lawyer that “your ephemeral convention” was irrelevant. She was referring to the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Russia, as a member state of the Council of Europe, is legally bound.
Even the limited, Kremlin-sanctioned “competition” on December 4 will hardly be on a level playing field. Yabloko, the last registered liberal party, will have to spend one-third of its meager campaign budget on collecting the signatures for registration. With law-mandated free television slots available—for the first time—only to the four parties currently in the Duma, this will not leave the liberals much opportunity to get their message across. News programs tell viewers only what they “need to know”: according to Medialogia research group, during the past week Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party received 121 mentions on state television, followed by Vladimir Putin’s [sic] “Popular Front” coalition with 70, and the Communists with 42. Others were not even close.
A taste of what is to come on December 4 was given a few days ago in St. Petersburg, where outgoing governor and soon-to-be parliamentary speaker Valentina Matviyenko received 94.5 percent of the vote in municipal “elections.” Opposition and independent candidates were not allowed to register; former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov was arrested for campaigning against Matviyenko; observers and journalists were thrown out from the polling places; 41 percent of those who voted “rushed to the polls” in the last hour—a foolproof sign of ballot-stuffing.
At the same meeting with Medvedev, Yabloko chairman Sergei Mitrokhin politely suggested that the Kremlin’s monopoly in parliament is detrimental to the country. The president retorted that “it is also bad when parliament is unconsolidated, as it was in the 1990s.”
Given the history of Russia’s parliaments from 1993 to 1999—competitive elections, wide political representation, unfettered debates, four rejections of Kremlin-nominated prime ministers, and one near-miss at presidential impeachment (short by 17 votes)—one must presume that by “unconsolidated,” Dmitri Medvedev meant “democratic.”
One more great example of Kremlin newspeak.