A Bad Day for Democracy in Russia

Times Staff Writers

The Russian elections may have been predictable, but in their outcome, many democratic political leaders believe, they were decisive. Democracy -- the political ideal to which many Russians aspired when they threw off 70 years of Communist rule -- got voted down.

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin’s victory with 71% of the vote left the entire spectrum of the Russian political opposition in its wake, but none was more fractured than the pro-democracy movement. With both of its parties shut out of parliament, their leaders at odds and their only presidential candidate finishing fourth, democratic forces admit they will be absent from discussions of policy over the next four years.

“As of today, the Russian people have shown that they do not want democracy as it is construed by Western standards,” Sergei Ivanenko, deputy head of the pro-democracy Yabloko party, said Monday after the lone democratic candidate in the race, Irina Khakamada, finished with 3.9% of the vote.

Khakamada herself was more blunt: “People have been so thoroughly brainwashed that they have come to believe that democracy is a horror, and that an authoritarian regime is less horrible, and it will provide higher wages.”


Analysts said the elections confirmed that the public was quite willing to overlook Putin’s backtracking on freedoms in favor of the economic stability he has brought to the country.

“The elections have shown that the country has gone back to the times of the Gorbachev perestroika,” said Pavel Voshchanov, an analyst with Novaya Gazeta newspaper, referring to the era of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. “There is only one political party

“But back then, in Gorbachev times, the wide masses of ordinary people supported this street opposition, whereas today the people are looking the other way.”

On the other hand, that 25% of voters backed candidates other than Putin proves that an opposition still exists in Russia, and may simply need new leaders, Gleb Pavlovsky of the Effective Politics Foundation said at a news conference. “I am convinced that we are witnessing the dawn of the formation of a new opposition,” he said.


The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s 340-member observer team said Monday that Sunday’s election was “generally well-administered.” But the group said the poll “did not adequately reflect the principle necessary for a healthy democratic election process” because Putin did no real campaigning and other candidates had little media access.

A senior U.S. diplomat in Moscow echoed some of the OSCE’s concerns. “It’s clear that President Putin does enjoy the support of the majority of the Russian people. At the same time, there’s certainly some questions that can be raised about ... the integrity of the process as a whole,” he said.

The Communist Party, until the most recent elections a real rival for power in Russia, finished second with less than 13.7% of the vote.

For pro-democracy forces, the worst of the news hit in December, when Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, which Khakamada formerly represented in the parliament as deputy speaker, failed to get the minimum 5% vote needed to sit in parliament.


The parties after that could not unite behind a presidential candidate, and failed even to agree on whether to boycott the poll. Many feared that entering a race Putin was clearly fated to win would endorse an unfair process and, perhaps more seriously, leave pro-democratic forces with a showing so poor they might not be able to recover.

But Khakamada was upbeat Monday, saying her relatively strong finish in Moscow and other large cities left her confident that the new pro-democracy party she plans to start would win broad support in time for the 2008 elections.

She said democratic forces would have no chance in Russia if they did not move to the left and appeal to the Communist Party’s traditional support base among pensioners and others in need of social programs.

Both pro-democracy parties have their roots among Russia’s right-wing entrepreneurs, and thus have become associated with unpopular economic reforms, tax reduction and even the wealthy “oligarchs” who have grabbed much of the nation’s mineral wealth, some democratic leaders said.


“There are a lot of reasons why we failed, and one of them is our responsibility for 10 years of painful reforms,” Boris Nemtsov, a Union of Right Forces leader, said in an interview. “This is the payment for transformation from communism to the market, and if you look at the European countries like Poland and Hungary, the same thing happened with reformers in those countries.

“People have come to believe that chaos and poverty and democracy are the same things. And the main idea for us now is to explain to people that democracy is an opportunity to be wealthy, to be lucky,” he said.

Ironically, Nemtsov said, the further Russia moves toward what he called “soft dictatorship” under Putin, the easier the democratic parties’ position will be in 2008.

“Putin will help us because he has compressed all the things that are important for our voters: freedom, democracy, independence of press, balance of power,” Nemtsov said.


“It’s just like in diving. If you are in very, very deep water and something happens to your pipe, you immediately understand the meaning of air. Immediately. The same thing will happen with freedom and democracy.”


Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times’ Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.