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Commentariat: An eye on Russia

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The results of the Russian parliamentary election last weekend served only to reaffirm pundits’ and analysts’ fears that Russia has veered dangerously far from the path to democracy.

President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party won a sweeping majority of parliamentary seats Sunday, paving the way for Putin to carve out an influential political role for himself, once his term ends in March.

With 64% of the vote, United Russia charged miles ahead of the communists, the runners up, who took just under 12% of the vote. Opposition parties maintained that the election was manipulated through bribery, coercion and ballot stuffing.

Chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, leader of the Other Russia opposition movement, called the election “dishonest” and “dirty”. Others have called it the end of democracy in Russia.

Like most of the democratic world, Czech commentators viewed the election results with extreme suspicion, criticizing the lack of transparency.

In Mladá fronta Dnes Tuesday Libor Dvořák noted that although the election result seems improbable, it probably still reflects to a large extent Russia’s voting preferences. Massive propaganda is to blame for result, he argued. It’s not so surprising United Russia fared so well, he noted, given the party received some 90% of television election spots and 90% of ad space devoted to the elections in the print media.

“After such massage, the politically passive majority of the nation, satisfied with the relative stability in their country, voted exactly how the short blond man with the stony face wanted them to,” Dvořák wrote. “Most of the voters even think they were exercising their own free will.”

The tightrope walker

“Why is it that such a large proportion of Russia’s political elite has rejected the concept of liberal democracy and is searching for alternatives?” Ondřej Soukup wondered in Hospodářské noviny Tuesday. “The legacy of the 90s is the main culprit.” He noted that, for Russia, the 90s meant a period of dramatic social decline, increasing crime, massive corruption and shady privatisation. “All that happened alongside speech about democracy, human rights and the free market,” he wrote. “It’s not so surprising that for a large segment of the population, democracy has become practically a four-letter word.”

Soukup argued that the strength as well as the weakness of the current regime lies in its ability to concentrate the power of the political elite and, thanks to high oil prices, stabilise the economy and the society. He added, however, that behind the scenes there are violent confrontations over the control of property and the flow of finances.

Europe’s continuing reliance on Russian oil, makes the country a particularly dangerous threat, Hospodářské noviny’s Martin Ehl noted Tuesday. “Guessing what Putin and the people around him will do is becoming increasingly complicated,” he said.

And while Russia may seem dangerously unpredictable and unstable to democratic countries around the world, said Pavel Máša in Lidové noviny Monday, to Russians Putin continues to represent a stabilising force. “Putin has been demonstrating feats worthy of a tightrope walker, who’s able to withstand even the strongest gusts of wind,” he wrote. “In an exceptionally short time he was able to lift his country from the ‘failed states’ category and group it with countries that help shape the evolution of the world.”

Vladimír Plesník agreed in Právo Monday, saying “Above all else, Putin returned to Russia that which they value so much: a renewed sense of dignity.”

Máša argued, however, that Putin’s tactic with United Russia (there isn’t anyone better around) could very well be foreshadowing Putin’s downfall. “[The Sunday] referendum about his personal qualities gave Putin a reason to try and retain political power,” he wrote. “But sooner or later, the Russian saying he so likes to quote could turn against him: ‘Victory belongs not to those held up by strength but those supported by truth’.”

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