On the Call for Democracy, Mr. Medvedev Stays Silent

As the Kremlin prepares for yet another round of stolen elections in December 2011 and March 2012, more and more prominent voices in Russian society—including those not usually known for involvement in politics—are beginning to sound the alarm bells. With growing public opposition to Vladimir Putin’s twelve-year regime (an April poll showed that 50 percent of Russians disapprove of his government), the continuing crackdowns on rallies and the barring of opposition parties from elections only increase the likelihood of less-than-peaceful change from below. Repression and fraud can only go so far, as was shown by Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, whose party “won” more than 80 percent of parliamentary seats just weeks before he was forced out of power.

In Major News Conference, Medvedev's Message Stays the Same

It has been a long time since a Russian president’s remarks were awaited as anxiously and with as many expectations as Dmitri Medvedev’s two-and-a-half-hour news conference on May 18, with more than 800 reporters in attendance. In a break from standard practice, no subject was announced by the Kremlin. Russia’s blogosphere filled with all kinds of rumors. Mr. Medvedev will announce that he, not Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, will run in the 2012 election. He will pardon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s most prominent political prisoner. News agencies even published a supposed “leak” of the president’s remarks, announcing the dismissal of Mr. Putin and the appointment of Grigory Yavlinsky, founder of the liberal Yabloko party, as prime minister.

Russia’s Citizen-Funded Opposition

The arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky during the parliamentary election campaign in 2003 was, among other things, a signal to Russian entrepreneurs: refrain from politics, or else. Mr. Khodorkovsky, then Russia’s richest man, donated millions to educational, philanthropic, and charitable programs, as well as to political parties he supported—the liberal Yabloko party and the Union of Rightist Forces, both of which happened to be in opposition to Vladimir Putin. The signal was understood: apart from being shut out from the media, denied registration, and barred from elections, the Russian opposition has also, since 2003, been left almost penniless. No businesspeople are willing to repeat Mr. Khodorkovsky’s fate.

Communist Leader, Gennady Zyuganov: Kremlin-Approved Opposition

There was a time when Russian Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov mattered. After winning parliamentary elections in 1995, he looked certain to prevail over the increasingly unpopular Boris Yeltsin in the 1996 presidential vote. At the Davos Economic Forum in February 1996, the leader of Russia’s Communists was received as a leader-in-waiting; by the summer he was already distributing posts in his future government. The election of 1996 was the closest-fought poll in Russia’s history. In the end, with the Soviet era still fresh in people’s minds, a majority of voters chose to reelect an unpopular president rather than face a Communist comeback: Mr. Zyuganov lost to Mr. Yeltsin in the second round of voting, 40.3 percent to 53.8.

Russia, Ten Years Without Freedom

If one were to name a particular date when Russia’s nascent democracy succumbed to Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime, April 14, 2001 would be a fairly good contender. Ten years ago the Russian government, using the state-owned energy giant Gazprom as its proxy, seized control of NTV—the country’s largest and most popular independent television channel. There were, of course, other significant dates: June 22, 2003 (the government-ordered shutdown of TVS, Russia’s last independent television channel), October 25, 2003 (the arrest of oil tycoon and opposition supporter Mikhail Khodorkovsky), December 7, 2003 (the expulsion of pro-democracy parties from Parliament in heavily manipulated elections), December 12, 2004 (the abolition of direct gubernatorial elections—ironically, signed into law by Mr. Putin on Constitution Day). But it was the takeover of NTV that was, in many ways, the point of no return.

The Kremlin’s Puppet ‘Opposition’

As December’s parliamentary elections approach, the Kremlin faces a dilemma: how to keep the real opposition away from the ballot box and preserve full control over the legislature, while at the same time “letting off steam” in the face of rising discontent and presenting an acceptable facade to the West? For all its dictatorial habits, Russia’s regime certainly wants to avoid looking like Kazakhstan, where the government party won 100 percent of seats in Parliament, and longtime leader Nursultan Nazarbayev was reelected with 95 percent of the vote.

The Kremlin’s Election Manager

Russia’s 2011–12 election season has begun in earnest. On Monday, the Central Electoral Commission, responsible for organizing the vote, registering candidates, and certifying official results, reappointed its chairman, Vladimir Churov, for a second four-year term. In the presence of Kremlin deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, commission members supported Mr. Churov by a vote of fourteen to one. He will thus remain in charge of both this December’s parliamentary and next March’s presidential elections. Intense media speculation that Mr. Churov, who began his career in the 1990s as Vladimir Putin’s deputy at the St. Petersburg Committee for External Relations, will be replaced by former Constitutional Court Judge Boris Ebzeev, said to be a protégé of Dmitri Medvedev, has, predictably, come to nothing. In the end, Mr. Ebzeev was not even a candidate.

Mr. Putin’s Vote Machine Stalls

Sunday’s regional and municipal elections in Russia were widely seen as a dress rehearsal for December’s parliamentary poll. Some 24 million people — a quarter of the electorate — were eligible to participate. The vote confirmed what analysts have long been suggesting: as the regime’s support base shrinks, Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party is forced to rely on increasingly blatant fraud to preserve its legislative majorities. The tricks were on ample display: the removal of observers and journalists, ballot-stuffing, voter bribery, multiple voting with absentee certificates — even an underground factory of fake ballot papers. And those are just the documented cases.

Qaddafi’s Russian Cheerleaders

Since its creation in 2005 for the purpose of preventing an “orange revolution” in Russia, Nashi (translation: “Ours”), a Kremlin-sponsored youth movement popularly dubbed “Putinjugend,” has served its political masters loyally and without too much scrupulousness. Those who crossed the regime’s path, be they domestic opponents or foreign diplomats, could count on Nashi’s attention. In at least two cases of assault on opposition leader Boris Nemtsov — in November 2007 and in March 2009 — the attackers were identified as current or former Nashi operatives (in the latter case, during the Sochi mayoral campaign, Mr. Nemtsov’s eyes were doused with ammonia). The opposition leader was not the only target.

Mr. Putin’s Billion-Dollar Palace

The scope of corruption in Vladimir Putin’s Russia has been much discussed, documented in expert reports and quantified in international ratings. Transparency International estimates the country’s annual corruption market at $300 billion; its Corruption Perception Index placed Russia in 154th place, behind Congo and Libya. As economist Anders Ǻslund has noted, there is only one country in the world that is both richer (in terms of GDP per capita) and more corrupt than Mr. Putin’s Russia — and that is Equatorial Guinea. Yet despite many suspicions, Mr. Putin himself has not been openly named in relation to a specific scheme — until now.

Kremlin, Going out of Fashion

The loss of moral legitimacy is an unscientific but sure warning sign for any authoritarian regime. Television channels, electoral commissions, and security services may still be safely under control, but once public association with the ruling elite becomes at best unfashionable, and at worst shameful, there can be no going back.

Mr. Putin on Trial (Literally)

Vladimir Putin on trial in Moscow — an almost unimaginable idea in the context of today’s Russia. Yet the precedent, albeit in a somewhat farcical way, was set earlier this week as a Russian court — for the first time in Mr. Putin’s eleven-year rule — admitted and heard a case with the Russian leader acting as a defendant.

On December 16, 2010, during a live televised question-and-answer session, Mr. Putin accused opposition leaders Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Ryzhkov, and Vladimir Milov of stealing money from the state. “What do Nemtsov, Ryzhkov, Milov, and others really want?”, the prime minister read from a viewer’s question, before asserting: “Money and power, what else do they want?! In their day they wrought havoc, in the ’90s, they stole quite a few billion along with the Berezovskys and others who are now in prison.”

Kremlin’s New ‘Undesirables’

In the latest annual Press Freedom Index, Russia ranked 140th in the world, between Ethiopia and Malaysia. Even putting aside the all-too-frequent murders, the origins of which are difficult to prove, Russian journalists have faced an increasing array of Kremlin-sponsored tricks designed to suppress “unwanted” information, from financial pressure and censorship to the forced closure of independent TV stations.


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