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Putin-style democracy rules in Russia

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia’s transition to a democracy has always been a bit of a joke for some participants.

Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, for example, likes to tell a tale about the 1996 presidential election: aides to the incumbent Boris Yeltsin tell him the bad news that his rival Zyuganov had got 62 percent -- but quickly reassure him he has won, with 75 percent of the votes.

That story may or may not be apocryphal.

What’s certain, analysts say, is only someone anointed by President Vladimir Putin will succeed him after a presidential election next year -- an outcome that suits in a country accustomed to centuries of strong leadership by a single figure.

Likewise, in a parliamentary election on December 2, opinion polls show the main pro-Kremlin party will win around two-thirds of the vote, largely because of Putin’s personal endorsement.

The election is already controversial outside the country’s borders. Europe’s election watchdog, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, has cancelled plans to monitor the vote, citing obstruction by Russian authorities.

Russia may be a democracy, but not as we know it in Western Europe or North America, says political analyst Nikolai Petrov of the Carnegie Centre in Moscow. He says it’s closer to the systems of other ex-Soviet states like Kazakhstan.

“I would say these similarities on the surface with the West do not work, it’s impossible to compare Russia’s party system with any developed democracy,” Petrov said of the December 2 vote.

In many Western countries, the role of backbench deputies is often to act as little more than voting fodder, following the party line, but in Russia their job is even more limited.

“Political parties do not play any role in the political system, except to give legitimacy to executive control over the legislature once every four years,” said Petrov.

Russia has raised the minimum voting threshold to get into parliament to 7 percent. This means that Zyuganov’s Communists -- heirs of the old Soviet ruling party and no friends of western-style democracy -- will easily get in, though other opposition parties may not.


Fierce Kremlin critics from small liberal parties have no hope of making it.

Dennis Volkov of the Levada Centre pollsters points out that the liberal parties have seen a gradual slide in support.

“We can name several reasons, one is the access to TV channels, nearly 80 percent of Russians gain information ... from two channels, from (state-owned) Channel One and RTR,” he said.

But Kremlin control over the media is not the only issue.

“The understanding of democracy itself is very uncertain”, Volkov added.

More than 40 percent of Russians polled earlier this year by the EU-Russia Centre, a think-tank, said Western democracy was “inappropriate” or “destructive”. The overwhelming majority felt that Russia was “special” and needed to follow its own path.

A separate poll last summer found that young people admired the Soviet leader Josef Stalin. Half of the 1,800 teenagers queried by Levada said he was a wise leader, even though he presided over the deaths of millions in a one-party state.

Putin’s chief political strategist, Vladislav Surkov, has tapped into these sentiments, coining the term “sovereign democracy” to describe a political system he believes suits Russia’s unique needs and keeps it away from the Western model.

Surkov’s followers explain “sovereign democracy” as a political creed centered on a strong, nationalist state which guarantees stability and acts as a bulwark against foreign meddling.

Hence control over the media is deemed necessary to ensure stability, a clampdown on non-governmental organizations is needed to stop them fomenting unrest and limits are put on democracy to prevent chaos.

In practice, this defines Putin’s Russia, run by a leadership determined to prevent a return to the chaos of the 1990s or Western-backed popular revolutions like those which took place in neighboring Ukraine and Georgia.

Surkov argues that Russia is just as democratic in its own way as the West; but since it has no tradition of free elections, the country needs protection from foreign meddling.

Privately, Kremlin officials say Russia’s politics need “manual control” to ensure stability.

“If you’re healthy a cold shower is good for you, but if you already have pneumonia it can kill you,” said one Kremlin official, justifying the need to limit democracy.