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As Pro-kremlin Party Wins in Russia, Fears for Democracy’s Future Abound

December 9, 2003
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After a sleepless night watching the vote count in Russia’s parliamentary elections, Alexander Osovtsov sounded extremely tired.

Osovtsov, who was running on the slate of Yabloko, one of Russia’s two major liberal parties, failed to get into the new Duma, Parliament’s lower house, in Sunday’s vote.

Nor did SPS, another liberal party. Like Yabloko, it failed to cross the 5 percent threshold needed to win parliamentary seats.

The clear winner was the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party, which won an estimated 37 percent of the national vote, nearly three times as much as the second-place party.

The overwhelming showing by a party so closely aligned with Russian President Vladimir Putin led many to express concern about the future of democracy in Russia.

“All restrictions are now down. The Kremlin is now free to do whatever it wants,” Osovtsov said.

Putin said the elections were both free and fair, but Osovtsov wasn’t alone in bemoaning the results of the vote.

The Council of Europe and the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe criticized the ways in which state-owned media outlets trumpeted Putin’s party.

The recent jailing of Jewish oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an active supporter of the liberal parties, also was seen as boosting United Russia.

“On Sunday, Russia took a big step backward,” said Tankred Golenpolsky, founder and editor of Moscow’s International Jewish Gazette.

Jewish voters appeared to have supported a losing cause.

While it’s difficult to say how exactly Jews voted Sunday, results of the vote among Russians living in Israel offer a glimpse of Russian Jewish electoral sympathies.

About 100,000 Russians living in Israel have the right to vote in Russian elections, though only about 10,000 cast ballots.

According to the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv, which was responsible for the vote count, 41 percent of Russian Israelis supported SPS, 24 percent voted for Yabloko and 16 percent preferred United Russia.

Yabloko and SPS weren’t alone in their failure: Only four parties out of 23 in the race were able to cross the 5 percent threshold.

In addition to United Russia, the other three winners were the Communists, with 13 percent, the party of ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, at 12 percent, and the leftist nationalists from the Homeland bloc, with 9 percent.

The Communists won only half of what they received in elections four years ago, but Zhirinovsky’s party doubled its Duma representation. Some observers are speculating that Zhirinovsky may strike a parliamentary agreement with the Kremlin, giving United Russia a majority.

The liberal parties favored by many Russian Jews still are likely to have a few seats in the Duma.

According to Russian electoral law, half of the seats in the 450-member body are distributed proportionally to party lists that capture more than 5 percent. The other 225 seats go to the winners of direct votes in single-seat districts, and the liberals are expected to win a handful of those seats.

With the single-seat winners, United Russia secured at least 222 seats out of the total 450.

Many analysts agree that the new Duma may rubber-stamp changes to Russia’s constitution if the Kremlin finds it appropriate. Some speculate that Putin, who is expected to win re-election in March easily, may use this leverage to pass legislation allowing him to seek a third presidential term in 2008 or to alter the basis of Russia’s young democracy in some other way.

A day after the elections, the liberals among Russia’s media were discussing the stunning margin of victory of the pro-Kremlin forces, the impressive show of the two nationalist parties and the unprecedented weakness of the liberals, who for the first time in Russia’s post-Soviet history will not have any significant parliamentary representation.

“The country woke up in a new country,” read the headline of Gazeta, a leading Moscow daily.

Many Jewish voters were disappointed and frustrated by the results.

“The elections showed that Russia is not ready for liberal changes, that people don’t need them anymore. The people need populism; the people give up real democratic values in favor of authoritarian-styled rule,” Golenpolsky said.

“Voters followed United Russia, which didn’t offer any political program nor any kind of ideology outside of its unconditional show of support” for Putin, said Alexander Sakov, a Jewish leader and editor of a Siberian Jewish monthly in the city of Omsk.

Not all Jewish leaders agreed.

The vote showed “that the majority of the population is supporting the way Russia has been following in the last four years,” Berel Lazar, one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, said in a statement Monday. The support for United Russia “is a clear-cut signal that people don’t want coups and revolutions, that they vote for stability,” he said.

Aside from the defeat of the liberals, many Jews are concerned about the impressive showing by politicians with known anti-Semitic and ultranationalist records.

Nikolai Kondratenko, a former governor in southern Russia known for his anti-Zionist rhetoric, won a seat on the Communist list.

Albert Makashov, who became notorious seven years ago for anti-Semitic remarks, won in the same district where he lost a re-election bid four years ago.

Dmitriy Rogozin, a co-chairman of Homeland, built his bloc’s campaign on thinly veiled anti-Semitic tirades against the “Jewish rich” and has pledged support for a greater Russia and protection of the interests of ethnic Russians abroad.

While sociologists have yet to explain the significant surge in nationalist vote, some Jews are expressing serious concerns.

“While few will miss the departing Communists, whose leaders fell to a new low in their Jew-baiting rhetoric this election cycle,” Leonid Stonov, the director of international bureaus and activities at the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union, said in a statement, “it’s better to have the anti-Semites and racists in opposition to the government than in bed with it.

“With so many nationalist leaders in the Duma, in the four years to come we will have a constant venue for all kinds of anti-Semites and radical patriots,” said Alla, a university instructor who was at a Moscow JCC on Monday afternoon and refused to give her last name.

“Perhaps I sound too alarmist, but I fear for my own and my children’s safety when I think that words of hate can translate into action,” said Alla, who supported SPS.

Mark Levin, executive director of the Washington-based NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia, said almost all the Russian Jewish leaders he contacted in the wake of the vote count “expressed a certain amount of concern” over the results.

Levin took a wait-and-see attitude.

“We’re going to see if, in the post-election situation, there is going to be a fundamental change in the government’s attitude toward the Jewish community and the State of Israel,” he told JTA.

Putin generally has pursued pro-Jewish and pro-Israel policies during his time in office.

For his part, Osovtsov said that now that his party has lost, he is worried about his own personal future.

The director of projects with the Open Russia foundation, a charity group created and chaired by Khodorkovsky, Osovtsov said he would prefer to continue working in Russia but is not ruling out the possibility that he might be arrested, along with some other people close to Khodorkovsky’s Yukos oil company.

“If I don’t find myself in prison sometime soon, I will leave Russia,” he said.

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