Russian Politics as Usual, With Putin’s Grasp Firm

By S.A. Greene

Published December 12, 2003, issue of December 12, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

LONDON — There was a time not too long ago that Russia was famous for its instability. Observers joked that if President Boris Yeltsin lived long enough everyone would get a crack at being prime minister.

President Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000 promising to change all that, to make life predictable again for Russians. In this, judging from this month’s parliamentary elections, he has succeeded.

The results matched early predictions, with Putin tightening his already-strong grip on politics in the country. His party, Unified Russia, will control some 49% of the seats in the State Duma. Together with allies, the Kremlin can count on a 66% majority, enough to rewrite the constitution unilaterally. And Putin is expected to be re-elected easily in March.

For some, though, the results are alarming. The biggest winners were nationalists, allied to Putin, who backed his crude campaign against business tycoons. Turnout was high among the disgruntled. Urban intellectuals, who benefited most from post-Soviet reforms and vote liberal, mostly stayed home.

“Of course, a lot of people are not happy with the results,” said the president of the Russian Jewish Congress, Evgeny Satanovsky. “Myself, I can’t say that I’m thrilled when I look at the new makeup of the Duma. There were a lot of surprises, but we learn to live with surprises. The danger arises when this nationalism gets out of control, when the higher powers are unable to rein it in. So far, there is no sign that the Kremlin’s grip on the nationalists is weakening.”

Turnout was 54%, enough to validate the elections, but still Russia’s lowest post-Soviet turnout to date. A poll of 8,307 listeners by Echo of Moscow Radio on Monday showed that 82.2% were unhappy with Sunday’s results. For now, though, all is quiet on Red Square.

After only 12 years of democracy, Russians have already learned the American art of apathy. One vote doesn’t matter, they figure. And, anyway, those politicians are all the same.

Now, of course, they’re right. All the politicians who weren’t “the same” are out of office. A parliament that was once just impotent is now irrelevant. Putin will continue to do whatever he pleases, and as long as oil revenues keep the economy growing, that’s likely to be fine by most Russians.

Not only did the predictable happen in the December 7 elections, it happened in predictable ways. Russian television covered no one but Unified Russia. A new party, Homeland, which everyone assumes is tied to the Kremlin, went from 0% to 8% of the Duma in a matter of months, just like Unity (Unified Russia’s predecessor) did in the 1999 elections. Moreover, Homeland did what it was expected to do, namely win over Communist voters with hard-line, anti-oligarch, nationalist rhetoric. The Communists, as a result, were left with only 12%, less than half of their previous total.

The liberals, too, did what everyone had expected them to — they imploded. Ignored by the media, and with their biggest economic backer in jail, they let their egos run wild and split the vote between Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces. Now, save for a handful of lucky winners in single-mandate districts, they will lack any representation in parliament.

The Communists, plus a handful of independents, are now the only opposition left to Putin.

Liberal leaders, freshly out of a job, are busily beating the warning drums, worrying aloud about what they describe as the new Duma’s disturbingly fascist colors. Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s absurdly named Liberal Democrats, with their Russia for (White) Russians rhetoric, boosted their showing from 6% last year to 8.4% this year. Their propaganda is indistinguishable from that of Homeland, the Communists or, for that matter, much of Unified Russia.

Two antisemitic firebrands ousted in 1999, Albert Makashov and Viktor Ilyukhin, are back in this time around.

Most observers are expecting the nationalizing crusade against the oligarchs — read: rich Jews — to continue apace. That crusade in particular is becoming a common topic of discussion at meetings of the businessmen who sponsor the Russian Jewish Congress. But the fate of the oligarchs — including imprisoned Jewish oilman Mikhail Khodorkovsky – does not appear to be high on the list of things ordinary Russian Jews have to worry about.

Nor does there seem to be any need to worry about outright authoritarianism. Such tactics might be a good way of controlling an unruly population, but Russia is anything but unruly. When citizens in neighboring Georgia went to the polls, President Eduard Shevardnadze knew he and his friends were doomed, so he cheated. Georgians rioted, and now Shevardnadze’s gone. Or look at Ukraine, where President Leonid Kuchma’s habits of imprisoning opposition leaders and attacking journalists sparked months of protests that very nearly toppled him.

Putin hasn’t had to go that far. He knew exactly how people would vote, as well as how they wouldn’t vote.

Watching TV in Russia these days feels like traveling back to the Soviet Union: no matter what the channel, it’s all the same: How predictable.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.