Nationalists Surge, Pro-Western Parties Fail in Russian Elections

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Washington has added its voice to concerns about parliamentary elections in Russia that wiped out pro-Western parties and saw a resurgence of ultra-nationalists, including a party notorious for its anti-Western and anti-Semitic outlook.

For the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, parties campaigning for greater democracy, civil liberties, press freedom, free market principles and closer ties with the West won't be represented in parliament in significant numbers, after the Yabloko and Union of Right Forces (SPS) blocs failed to reach a five percent threshold.

Another significant development was the decline of the Communist Party, which lost about half of the support it achieved in the last election, in 1999. It remains the second-largest party, but with only about 12.7 percent of the total vote.

The big winner in Sunday's poll was United Russia, a party formed four years ago with the aim of promoting President Vladimir Putin.

United Russia's share of the votes -- 37.1 percent, or three times as many as the second-placed Communists -- makes Putin a shoo-in in presidential elections next year, and raises the possibility that he could push through constitutional changes to enable him to remain in office indefinitely.

More surprising was the strong showing for Putin's ultranationalist ally, Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), which almost doubled its support to get 11.6 percent of the vote, not far behind the Communists.

In the 1999 elections, the LPDR's support dropped from 11 percent to just over six, prompting some commentators to write it off as a harmless, spent force.

Zhirinovsky, whom critics say espouses neither liberal nor democratic values, attacked Jews during the recent campaign, saying they had "captured power all over the world."

He has also called over the years for closer ties with countries like Libya, Iran and Saddam-era Iraq.

On a post-election program on Russia's NTV channel, Zhirinovsky declared: "Russia does not need any Western-style democracy because, if democratic forces come to power and start implementing their sweet, Western-style liberal policies, Russia will disintegrate just like the Soviet Union under [Mikhail] Gorbachev."

The other party to do well this week, winning nine percent, was the Motherland bloc, a party created by the Kremlin three months ago to lure nationalists away from the Communist Party. It campaigned on a promise to reassert Russia's regional power status.

Under the Russian system, half of 450-seat lower house of parliament, the Duma, will be occupied proportionately by the four parties which exceeded the five percent threshold -- the three pro-Putin parties and the weakened Communists -- while the other 225 seats will be filled by the winners of individual district races.

Depending on the final results, Putin's allies look likely to enjoy a two-thirds majority, the requirement for any amendment to the constitution.

Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, whose party was attacked by state-controlled media throughout the campaign, called the election "a revolting spectacle" and warned that Russia was on its way to becoming a "fascist ... police state."

An SPS leader also spoke of a return to a police state.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a human rights and democracy watchdog which monitored the campaign and vote, said the process was flawed, with state resources used to promote pro-Putin parties.

At the State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher said the U.S. shared the OSCE's "concerns about things like state media systematically reporting favorably on pro-Kremlin parties and reporting negatively on opponents."

Putin dismissed criticism of the election Monday, calling it "another step in strengthening democracy in the Russian Federation."

Some Putin supporters said the parliamentary changes would be a good thing for Russia's reform process, as the Duma will be less likely to block Kremlin reformist initiatives.

Russian Jews are among those concerned about the election outcome.

The Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union (UCSJ) said the collapse of the pro-Western Yabloko and SPS removed from the political arena "a major force for the promotion of inter-ethnic tolerance."

The UCSJ did not mourn the poor showing for the Communists, whose leaders have also been accused of using anti-Semitic rhetoric during the campaign.

But it said the rise of the LDPR and Motherland was ominous, because of their close links to the Kremlin.

"It's better to have the anti-Semites and racists in opposition to the government than in bed with it," USCJ international activities director Leonid Stonov said in a statement.

The council also warned that with his increased support-base, Putin's "authoritarian tendencies," as seen in the recent clampdown on wealthy business figures, could "strengthen considerably."

The best known of those businessmen to fall foul of the law was oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an active supporter and financial backer of Yabloko and SPS.

Khodorkovsky was arrested last October, accused of tax evasion and embezzlement.

Experts participating in a recent American Enterprise Institute event examining developments in Russia in the light of the businessman's arrest agreed that the Bush Administration should reassess its embrace of Putin as the key to democratic reform in Russia.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow