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Last Updated: Monday, 8 December, 2003, 15:16 GMT
Russian democracy in question
By Stephen Dalziel
BBC Russian Affairs Analyst, in Moscow

The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, has hailed the result of Sunday's elections for the lower house of parliament as another step towards "strengthening democracy" in Russia.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which had 400 observers in Russia in the build-up to and during the vote, described it as a "regression in the democratisation of the country".

Polling station in St Petersberg
United Russia has emerged well ahead of other parties
Three months before he is due to stand for re-election, the Russian president has been given a Duma which he will be able to use as a rubber stamp for his own wishes.

United Russia, the party which he openly endorsed back in September, is the biggest party by a long way.

With over 90% of ballots counted, it has nearly 37% of the vote, ensuring it a large slice of the 225 parliamentary seats filled via proportional representation. That puts it nearly 25 percentage points ahead of the Communist Party, in second place.

Only four parties have reached the 5% mark needed to gain seats from the party lists. The other two show ultra-nationalist tendencies.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party is a known quantity. It was created in 1990 with the backing of the Soviet secret police, the KGB, and given its name with the specific intention of discrediting the terms "liberal" and "democratic", at a time when the Soviet Communist Party had just given up its monopoly on power.

Support

Certainly, Mr Zhirinovsky's party would not be considered liberal or democratic in any Western political system, and its leader has shown repeatedly that he prefers the politics of confrontation rather than compromise.

He even got involved in a scuffle when he went to vote on Sunday. But United Russia knows that, for all his bombast, Mr Zhirinovsky can be relied on to back it when it calls for it.

Vladimir Putin
Putin: Result will help strengthen democracy
The party - or, to be more exact, electoral bloc - that came fourth, Motherland, is much less well known. It came together only in September.

Its leader, Sergei Glazyev, describes it as, "a patriotic movement comprised of left-wing and right-wing people".

It has no clear political programme. Among its leading figures is Dmitry Rogozin, who's already been used by Mr Putin as a foreign affairs trouble-shooter.

Few will be surprised if Mr Rogozin is appointed foreign minister, although his aggressive style and outspoken nationalist views will win few friends abroad.

The Motherland bloc also includes retired army general Valentin Varennikov, who, on the eve of the coup against the then Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev, flew down to Mr Gorbachev's Crimean retreat to try to persuade him that the coup was a necessary step to save the USSR from collapse.

Few would think of him as a man with strong democratic credentials.

Another term?

The two parties which would be recognised in the West as genuinely liberal, and in favour of the free market, the SPS and Yabloko, both failed to reach the 5% barrier.

Had they joined forces, it is likely that they would have slipped into the Duma. Divided, they have fallen. It is something they may come to regret in the months ahead.

Just how pleased Mr Putin is with his new democracy may become evident in the Duma's first three months. The chances are high that parliament will change the constitution and extend from two the number of terms for which the president can serve.

Local leaders in Russia can already go to three terms, so the precedent is there. But will Mr Putin be happy to stop at three? No doubt he'll discuss it at length with his new colleagues.




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