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Uproar Over Election Fraud Ends in a Fizzle

Two weeks after the unprecedented walkout of the State Duma’s three opposition parties, little seems left of the whiff of democracy that surfaced so suddenly.

President Dmitry Medvedev appeared to yield to their demands over the weekend, meeting with leaders of the Just Russia, Liberal Democrat and the Communist parties to discuss Oct. 11 regional elections that they say were blatantly falsified in favor of the ruling United Russia party.

But the outcome of Saturday’s talks resembled a fizzle after the uproar that led to it: Medvedev declared that the country was moving forward on the path of democracy and that he was open to changing election laws favoring United Russia. And opposition party leaders said they were happy with that.

The Kremlin also downplayed the meeting’s emergency character, rebranding it as a routine roundtable between the president and the heads of the Duma’s four factions, including United Russia, that had been originally scheduled for Tuesday.

Medvedev also placed the disputed elections low on the agenda, focusing rather on the country’s proposals to the Group of 20 and his planned state-of-the-nation address.

The result seemed to give credence to skeptics’ claims that the Duma walkout was a Kremlin-orchestrated affair.

“This was just a demonstration to make us believe that apparently we have democracy and democratic procedures,” Ilya Yashin, a leading member of the Solidarity opposition movement, told The Moscow Times.

All participants of Saturday’s meeting were positive about it afterward, and even Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who led the Oct. 14 walkout, said he thought it was “excellent.”

Yashin said this merely showed that the Duma opposition parties had been co-opted by the Kremlin. “These are systemic parties that coordinate their actions with the presidential administration,” he said.

The opposition factions have denied working with the Kremlin in the past.

Yashin said Medvedev should not be judged by his words but by his actions. “He has been president 1 1/2 years, and he is effectively continuing the tough course set by Putin, despite his talk about liberalization,” he said.

Dmitry Oreshkin, an analyst with the Mercator think tank, said Medvedev’s words ultimately mattered little.

“What he said is absolutely unimportant. What is important is that three loyal, systemic opposition parties suddenly and publicly demonstrated that the elections were rigged. That is a new feature in politics,” he said.

But Oreshkin refuted the idea that the walkout had been orchestrated, calling it the “spontaneous action” of parties who are fearful of losing political representation in the future.

He said the scandal ultimately had to fade away like it did because Medvedev could not dismantle the system set up by his predecessor and mentor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. “He can just express his sympathy. That’s all,” he said.

Oleg Shein, a Duma deputy with A Just Russia who was a leading advocate of the walkout after losing the mayoral election in his native Astrakhan against the incumbent from United Russia, said the Kremlin needed to act against vote-rigging in the regions.

“If they do not act now, regional bureaucrats, and not the federal center, will set the agenda one year from now,” he said Monday, speaking by telephone from Astrakhan.

“It is very important to understand that stability depends on this,” he said.

Regional leaders like Mayor Yury Luzhkov and Dagestani President Mukhu Aliyev found themselves in the hot seat after the opposition and even senior officials claimed massive fraud in the Oct. 11 elections.

The Kremlin had urged Luzhkov in advance not to obstruct opposition parties from running. But at the same time, the Kremlin had made it clear that regional bosses’ careers were linked to how United Russia fared at the ballot box. Medvedev has fired governors after United Russia garnered poor election results.

Luzhkov has been quick to dismiss speculation that United Russia’s sweeping 66 percent victory in Moscow City Duma elections could be used to cripple him politically, telling reporters that he was one of the party’s founders and that he had no intention of leaving.

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