By Stan Crooke
Last weekend’s police attacks on anti-Putin demonstrators in Moscow and St. Petersburg underlined the extent to which the Kremlin is prepared to go in snuffing out all manifestations of opposition in the run-up to this year’s parliamentary elections and next year’s presidential elections.
In Moscow around 2,000 demonstrators who gathered for a protest rally in Pushkin Square on Saturday were surrounded by 9,000 riot police. Police made 170 arrests, including former chess champion Gary Kasparov, who now heads the United Civil Front and the broader coalition known as “The Other Russia”.
The following day around 500 demonstrators gathered in St. Petersburg in another anti-Putin rally organised by “The Other Russia”, despite several of the rally’s organisers having been arrested on arrival in the city. When the protestors attempted to stage a demonstration after their rally, the police staged baton-charges and made 150 arrests.
Less overt than last weekend’s physical attacks on demonstrators, but more far-reaching in terms of consolidating Putin’s authoritarianism, are the recent changes to Russia’s electoral system which have been implemented by the Kremlin.
Following on from the election of provincial governors being replaced by their appointment by Putin himself, and the requirement that registered political parties must have at least 50,000 members and be represented in at least half of Russia’s provinces, political parties must now win at least 7% of all votes cast throughout Russia in order to win any seats in the Duma (parliament).
The previous mixed system of “first-past-the-post” constituencies in conjunction with seats allocated according to the number of votes cast for party lists has now been replaced by a list-only system. This will make it more difficult for opposition candidates with a strong local base, but no national following, to secure re-election to the Duma.
The earlier requirement that an election would be valid only if at least 25% of the electorate participated has also been scrapped. Given the increasingly vacuous nature of Russian electoral “contests”, even 25% electoral participation might prove too high a hurdle for the forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.
In order to create an illusion of democratic pluralism, the Kremlin has recently set up “A Just Russia” to take part in the parliamentary elections. “A Just Russia” claims to be social-democratic in outlook, but is in fact pro-Putin and nothing other than an artificial creation of the Kremlin.
Similarly, next year’s presidential elections are likely to consist of a “choice” between two equally pro-Putin candidates, Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev. Putin himself is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term of office, although there have been suggestions that he may amend the constitution in order to scrap that restriction.
These national electoral “reforms” and initiatives have been backed up by local legislation. In Moscow, for example, the city council has banned rallies in the vicinity of historic monuments, defined the minimum space for participants in a rally as one square meter for every two protestors, and empowered police to break up indoor political rallies if there are more participants than chairs.
A recent study found that 78% of senior politicians and civil servants in Russia had a background, like Putin himself, in the secret service or the armed forces. Putin’s increasingly strident authoritarianism would suggest that the proportion is set to increase still further.