Russian President Vladimir Putin dramatically tightened his grip on power last week, when the party he heads won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections that outside observers called deeply flawed. Putin, who had cast the elections as a referendum on his rule, said the results gave him “moral authority” to wield power even after his presidency ends next year. Putin’s United Russia party won 315 of the 450 seats in the Russian Duma, and its allies won 85 more. The only opposition party in parliament will be the Communists, with just 50 seats.
Democracy advocates said Putin’s government silenced opposition candidates before the election and intimidated voters on election day. Many people had to vote in full view of police and other officials, and there were reports that some voters were offered cash or vodka to vote for United Russia. Others were threatened with a loss of government subsidies. “Measured by our standards,” said a German official, “this wasn’t a free, fair, or democratic election.” Putin shrugged off the criticism as foreign meddling. Outsiders should stop “poking their snotty noses” into Russian affairs, Putin said.
What the editorials said
Russia’s experiment with democracy is officially over, said the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Since United Russia now controls enough votes to amend the constitution, it could change the law forbidding Putin to run for a third term. Or, it could transfer power from the president to the prime minister and give that job to Putin. However it plays out, it’s now obvious that Russia has fallen sway to a brand of authoritarianism akin to a “Stalin-era personality cult.”
With Putin so openly mocking democratic values, said The Washington Post, it’s incumbent on the West to return the favor. The election put a lie to Putin’s claim that Russia “belongs in the club of Western democratic nations.” Therefore, “Western leaders must reassess Russia’s role in the G-8 and other democratic clubs, whose ideals and principles Moscow holds in such evident contempt.”
What the columnists said
The U.S. brought this crisis on itself, said Pat Buchanan in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Our approach toward Russia has served only to energize Russian nationalism, which Putin has skillfully exploited. “We pushed NATO into Moscow’s face” by bringing in former Soviet republics. We pulled out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, then announced plans to install missiles in Eastern Europe. We’ve sought to cut into Russia’s oil trade by backing its rivals. Putin’s anti-Americanism “is blowback for our contemptuous disregard of Russian sensibilities and our arrogant intrusions into Russian space.”
Putin’s victory also reflects something less sinister, said Mary Dejevsky in the London Independent. He happens to be incredibly popular. By any measure, Russia has become more prosperous and stable under Putin’s leadership these past eight years, and the Russian people give him the credit. “The elections may not have been as free, and certainly not as fair, as they should have been. But the result is not out of line with Russia’s public mood.”
So why, then, is Putin so afraid of dissent? asked opposition leader Garry Kasparov in The Wall Street Journal. Prior to the election, I was jailed for five days for the “crime” of participating in a public protest of Putin’s rule. Confident leaders don’t need to jail their opponents, nor do they need to silence the media and control all branches of government, as Putin now does. I suspect that Putin “is very aware of how brittle his power structure has become. Instead of sounding like a czar, high above the crowd, he’s beginning to sound just like another nervous autocrat.” There should be no doubt that “the ground is being prepared for greater oppression.”
Russians will elect a new president in March, and Putin continues to insist that he will not be a candidate. He could take over the prime minister’s slot, though in the current configuration, that job pales in power compared to the presidency. One scenario gaining favor among Kremlinologists is that Putin may opt for some kind of ill-defined role that would allow him to wield power behind the scenes, without the institutional constraints built into the other options. Russians have started referring to that position as “father of the nation.”