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No Opposition Duma Deputies, No Problem

Protesters biding time on a police bus during an opposition march. Garry Kasparov, who leads anti-Kremlin group Solidarity, is the man on the bus seated at far left. Igor Tabakov

In December 2007, Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, or SPS, suffered a crushing defeat in the State Duma elections. Each received less than 3 percent of the vote, short of the 7 percent threshold to gain seats in Duma. Yabloko led a poor campaign for those elections, and SPS, under Kremlin pressure, was afraid to run a number of well-known figures on its party list who were critical of the policies of then-President Vladimir Putin and United Russia.

Since then, the position of two of the remaining democratic parties has worsened. According to recent surveys, Yabloko’s ratings hover at about 1 percent. SPS was dissolved in 2008, and in its place the Kremlin created a new party, Right Cause, that is torn by internal divisions and is still unable to articulate a clear political platform. Yabloko and Right Cause have little?  chance of winning seats in the 2011 Duma elections.

Deputies elected to the next Duma will be the first to serve the new five-year term, which in December 2008 was increased from four years. That means that if liberal parties fail once again to gain seats in the parliament, they will have to wait until 2016 to give it another shot.

It is almost guaranteed that the liberal opposition will not have the opportunity to participate in the 2011 elections. Since 2007, the authorities have not registered a single new opposition political party. What’s more, prominent opposition members cannot get their names included on the lists of existing parties. In fact, arbitrary laws and prohibitive enforcement practices make it practically impossible to register and run in a presidential campaign if an opposition candidate is on the Kremlin’s black list.

With 18 months remaining before the next Duma elections and a little less than two years before the presidential election, the opposition must decide what it is going to do — especially since the next president will be serving a six-year term, which was increased from four years at the same time the Duma deputy terms were increased.

Anyone who had hoped that the political regime would be liberalized under President Dmitry Medvedev has been deeply disappointed. Whatever superficial improvements the authorities did make were applied exclusively to Kremlin-approved parties, while opposition parties remain under the Kremlin’s thumb. On Medvedev’s watch, Russia has reinforced its control over the mainstream media, manipulated and falsified election results, and granted even broader powers to the secret service and police agencies to harass members of the opposition. Medvedev has ensured that Putin’s vertical power structure has not only been preserved but has actually grown stronger.

The democratic opposition has only three options with regard to the next Duma elections: 1. try to create and register a new party; 2. join the list of an existing party; or 3. carry out a media campaign that will deliver the message to the people that the elections are illegitimate.

Gaining ground by joining an existing party will not work. For example, attempts by democratic movements to combine forces with Yabloko and run together in election campaigns have always ended in failure. Right Cause, which is incapable of doing anything without permission from the Kremlin, is clearly not an option for the real, independent opposition.

Opposition leader Vladimir Milov, who recently announced his departure from the Solidarity movement, is pushing the idea to create and register a new party, but this will require enormous effort and financial resources. It is doubtful that any wealthy sponsors will come forward and support opposition parties. This is particularly true after the trials and tribulations of former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who funded several opposition parties before he was arrested in 2003. Another exmple is former Neftyanoi Bank chief Igor Linshits, who reportedly funded SPS and then-Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov’s presidential campaign in 2004 before he was forced to flee in 2006 after being accused by law enforcement authorities of illegal banking activities and money laundering. (In May, the criminal charges against Linshits were dropped after the Prosecutor General’s Office determined that no criminal law had been broken.)

Even if a sponsor were daring enough to fund an opposition party, there is almost no doubt that such a party would be denied the opportunity to register and thus participate in elections. The country’s leadership, including the president and the prime minister, has repeatedly declared that the country’s party system has been perfected and that they are completely satisfied with the results. Senior presidential administration officials have implied that even if an opposition party were to manage to comply with all of the necessary legal requirements, it would be disqualified based on technical violations.

That leaves the opposition with only one option: get an early start now on discrediting the upcoming elections. Voters must eventually realize that the upcoming elections are nothing but a farce choreographed by the Kremlin’s playwrights. They must understand that many of the country’s leading opposition forces and politicians have been stripped of their right to participate in elections. As long as opposition candidates and parties cannot register and as long as election results are falsified with the complicity of the election authorities, the people must realize that the country’s election results are illegitimate. The deputies elected to the Duma under these circumstances have not received a mandate to represent the people and pass legislation. ? 

Denying a party the right to register will, by itself, serve as important proof that the authorities are acting illegally. The one question the opposition must answer for itself is whether it should use its already limited resources to create the huge bureaucratic machinery necessary to establish a party and to make it comply with all of the Kafkaesque legal requirements — or use the same resources in a more effective way but toward the same goal.

The Kremlin should clearly understand that maintaining electoral legitimacy is a very serious matter. Russia’s leaders can easily paint a pretty picture of the so-called elections. They can try to silence a significant part of the democratic, liberal electorate and their leaders. They can extend their own terms in office and cancel regional and municipal elections. But sooner or later, the majority of Russians, including Putin’s staunch supporters, will see through the Big Lie, and at that point the authorities will realize that they are sinking in quicksand.

Vladimir Ryzhkov, a State Duma deputy from 1993 to 2007, hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.

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