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A Russian Election Without Voters

The best assessment of Russia’s October 14th local elections was undoubtedly made by political analyst Alexander Kynev: commenting on United Russia’s “victory,” he observed that “the authorities formally receive a high percentage [of support], but there are almost no real people behind it. It is the rating of a void.”

Putin’s Defenders: Still Disconnected from Reality

Russia’s minister of culture, Vladimir Medinsky, is a self-styled historian who recently acquired a much-criticized and allegedly plagiarized Ph.D. in the discipline and has penned numerous publications on the political history of Russia. His knowledge of the basics, however, does not appear to be strong. In a recent blog post that instantly became an internet sensation, the minister called Vladimir Putin “the first Russian ruler since Nicholas [II] Romanov who came to power 100 percent legally … who preserves power 100 percent legally … the first [leader] in Russia’s history [to have come to power] in an honest universal-suffrage election.”

Regrettably, not one of the three parts of this statement is true.

The Council of Europe's Russia Failure

The autumn session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, currently under way in Strasbourg, has been hit by a scandal involving the Russian delegation: the speaker of the State Duma, Sergei Naryshkin, who had been invited to address the Assembly and had initially agreed, abruptly cancelled his trip, complaining that his “strategic proposals are unlikely to be heard by Parliamentary Assembly leaders and by Russophobe [sic] delegations.” (The speaker’s “strategic proposals” were aimed at “the serious problems with the development of parliamentarism in Europe.”) The Assembly’s president, French center-right legislator Jean-Claude Mignon, expressed “disappointment” at Naryshkin’s decision, reminding his Russian counterpart that “it takes two to hold a dialogue.”

Putin Critics Slam ‘Ludicrous Reset’ as US Silences Radio Liberty

For the nearly sixty years that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty broadcast its programs in Russian, successive Kremlin governments—with the sole exception of that of Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s only democratically elected president—have sought to silence its voice. Soviet leaders attempted to jam its signals and infiltrate its Munich headquarters with KGB operatives. Vladimir Putin, soon after coming to power, rescinded President Yeltsin’s decree granting Radio Liberty the right to operate a Moscow bureau. Last year, then President Dmitri Medvedev signed a law (which takes full effect this November) prohibiting foreign entities from owning radio stations in Russia.

Rallying Pressure on Putin

“We should thank this regime—without it, such different political forces would never have come together,” declared poet Dmitri Bykov as he addressed an estimated 50,000 protesters in downtown Moscow. “We should thank them for the fact that our country now has a civil society.” Like all opposition rallies since December, last Saturday’s protest brought together people of all political persuasions—liberals and socialists, nationalists and antifascists, ecologists and conservatives—united in a common rejection of the corruption, authoritarianism, and lawlessness of Vladimir Putin’s regime. As before, protesters were mostly young (according to a Levada Center survey, 71 percent were under the age of 44), mostly university-educated (53 percent), and mostly financially comfortable (61 percent).

Kremlin Attempts ‘Soft’ Control of Elections

This week, the host of analysts and commentators discussing the US presidential campaign were joined by a newcomer. “No elections are organized worse than the American ones, and they don’t want to improve them,” lamented Vladimir Churov, the chairman of Russia’s central electoral commission, who oversaw recent parliamentary and presidential elections in which, according to independent monitors, up to 14 million and 8 million votes (respectively) were “stolen” in the Kremlin’s favor. Russia’s opposition calls Churov a falsifier. At the Duma election, then President Dmitri Medvedev, always a diplomat, called Churov a “magician.” If this is what Churov means by “organizing” elections, America should consider itself complimented.

Ratings, Protests, and Elections: Russia Opens 2012–2013 Political Season

Following the traditional summer lull, Russia is entering a new political season. According to recent polls by the independent Levada Center, 42 percent of Russians express their support for the protesters who have been coming to the streets since December to demand free elections and democratic reforms. Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin’s favorability rating has fallen from 80 percent in 2008 to 48 percent today. The coming weeks will offer Russian citizens an opportunity to express their discontent both on the streets and (however imperfectly) at the ballot box.

Khimki vs. Kremlin: Russia’s Opposition Prepares New Challenge

Long before tens of thousands of Russians went to the streets in late 2011 to protest against Vladimir Putin’s rule and demand free elections, the Khimki Forest, a 2,500-acre natural reserve in the northern suburbs of Moscow, became a rallying point for Kremlin opponents. Since 2007, environmental activists, independent journalists, and civil society leaders have been protesting the government’s decision to destroy part of the forest (the only major source of vegetation to the north of the capital) to make way for a high-speed toll road connecting Moscow with St. Petersburg. The board of the company that received the contract to build the highway included a representative of billionaire Arkady Rotenberg, Putin’s longtime friend and former judo partner. According to a 2010 poll by the Levada Center, 76 percent of Khimki residents supported the protesters.

Putin's Hundred Days

This week marked the first 100 days of Vladimir Putin’s “new” presidency, and, although in his case the measure is more than dubious (as of August 9th, Putin has ruled Russia, as either premier or president, for 13 continuous years), it is an opportune milestone to gauge the direction of his policies. The “hundred days” brought few surprises. The principal purpose of Putin’s administration, it appears, has been revenge for the humiliation of last December, when, following a 100,000-strong pro-democracy rally in central Moscow, the Kremlin was forced—for the first time during Putin’s rule—to give concessions to the opposition by reinstating direct gubernatorial elections, registering opposition parties, and easing hurdles for presidential candidates.

Medvedev's Democratic 'Advisers'

Although they no longer fool anyone, the Kremlin still likes to maintain a few “liberal” decorations. During the four-year puppet presidency of Dmitri Medvedev (himself a decoration of the highest order), the grand-sounding but powerless Presidential Human Rights Council was filled with reputable civil society leaders, such as Lyudmila Alekseeva, Elena Panfilova, and Dmitri Oreshkin. Following Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency, more than a dozen council members have resigned—though some, including Alekseeva, later returned.

US House Leaders Prepare Gift to Putin?

Two days before leaving for the August recess, the leaders of the US House of Representatives announced that the two interconnected Russia bills—the extension of permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) and the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which proposes to sanction Russian human rights violators by denying them US visas and freezing their US assets—will not be considered on the floor until September and, most likely, until the lame-duck session after the November election.

Russia’s Opposition Challenges Putin on Syria

A recent piece in the New Republic, titled “In Russia, Even Putin’s Critics Are OK With His Syria Policy,” raised an important question of whether Moscow’s obstructionist stance with regard to sanctions on Assad is truly a Russian policy, or just that of Vladimir Putin’s undemocratic regime. The title of the article suggests the former—although no actual representatives of the Russian opposition are quoted.

After Targeting Protesters and NGOs, Russia Extends Crackdown on Dissent into Parliament

Following the heavily manipulated elections in 2003, in which pro-democracy parties lost nearly all of their seats, Russia’s Parliament, already largely loyal to the Kremlin since 2000, finally ceased to be an independent body. Then Speaker Boris Gryzlov famously declared it “not a place for discussions.” Unanimity was cemented with the removal of the last independent deputies in 2007: not only dissenting legislative initiatives, but even dissenting voices were no longer tolerated. In the last (and perhaps the most fraudulent) elections in December 2011, genuine opponents of Vladimir Putin were not even allowed on the ballot—which explains why the nominally “opposition” parties in the current Duma are backing key Kremlin initiatives (such as the recent law directed against NGOs).

Kremlin Retaliates for Magnitsky Bill—against Russians

When top Kremlin officials promised “retaliatory measures” in response to the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, a US congressional initiative that proposes to sanction corrupt Russian bureaucrats and human rights violators, it was clear they were not talking about banning US senators from keeping retirement savings in Russian banks. As many expected, retaliation was directed against Vladimir Putin’s critics inside Russia. Last month, police conducted early-morning raids and searches at the homes of leading opposition figures, including Boris Nemtsov, a vocal supporter of the Magnitsky Act. A new law on public rallies hastily passed by the Duma set fines for “violations” at 300,000 rubles ($9,000; ten times Russia’s average monthly salary).

A Fresh Kremlin Idea: Putin Seeks to Label NGO's as ‘Foreign Agents’

Faced with tangible threats to his rule—manifested by a record level of public mistrust (according to a June poll by the Levada Center, disapproval of the president stands at 44 percent; up from 27 percent two years ago) and an organized protest movement that shows no signs of subsiding—Vladimir Putin is taking a familiar route: crackdown. Following the recent passage of a law that set fines for “violations” at public rallies at 300,000 rubles ($9,000; ten times Russia’s average monthly salary), the Kremlin has come up with a new initiative. On Friday, the State Duma overwhelmingly passed the first reading of a bill, proposed by Putin’s United Russia party, which would officially label Russian NGOs that receive funding from abroad as “foreign agents.”

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