Background: Big Winner President Vladimir Putin
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SIMON MARKS: They counted the votes all night long and into the morning, from the Baltic to the Pacific, but within hours of the first results being published, it became clear that Vladimir Putin was on track for a massive victory.
The Russian leader wasn’t even on the ballot yesterday. Voting in Moscow, the president refused to say which party he was supporting… ( applause ) …but everybody knew the president was voting for United Russia, a brand-new party in its first electoral outing. In a field of 23 competing parties, United Russia secured more than a third of the vote, its support spread nationwide and throughout Russia’s socioeconomic divide. Turnout was 56 percent, slightly down from four years ago.
MAN ON STREET (Translated): I voted for United Russia because Russia is now getting up from its knees. It already has. And United Russia is a winner compared to all the other parties. I support Putin and United Russia because finally our country is winning some respect in the West and is becoming civilized.
SIMON MARKS: The other big winners, Russia’s two nationalist parties, one of them already threatening to re- nationalize recently privatized industries, both of them expected to be loyal to President Putin.
( Speaking Russian )
SIMON MARKS: The results mean Vladimir Zhirinovsky, long considered a crypto fascist by western observers of Russian politics, will now be a central figure in the parliament, and may be able to exert enormous influence over government policies. His party secured around 11 percent of the vote, and in Moscow today there was much speculation about what kind of bargain Mr. Zhirinovsky will seek to strike with the Kremlin in exchange for his support, support that could give President Putin the two- thirds majority he needs should he wish to change the constitution and serve more than two terms in office.
The Kremlin used a tried and tested formula this past weekend: As in 1999, the winning party was hastily created by the government specifically to fight these elections; it wrapped itself in the flag, secured utterly favorable media coverage from Russia’s television networks, all of which are now loyal to the Kremlin; its leaders spread unsubstantiated rumors in a bid to discredit their opponents; and its very name, United Russia, implies that everybody voting for it was acting in the national interest. And that left Russia’s liberal reformers out in the cold.
A dozen years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the country’s two parties promising western- style democratic reform failed to meet the 5 percent threshold for parliamentary representation. It’s an annihilation of historic proportions, caused partly by the country’s bad memories of economic reform during the Yeltsin era, and partly by the government-inspired difficulties both parties faced getting their message out.
It leaves familiar figures here, Grigori Yavlinksi, leader of the reformist Yabloka Party, and former finance minister Anatoly Chubais back at square one.
ANATOLY CHUBAIS ( Translated ): In this country there is no other political force that has the same experience with victories and defeats. We’ll start to fight all over again. We’ve done it before. We know how to do it.
SIMON MARKS: Also facing a tough road ahead, the country’s communists. Though they still won 12 percent of the vote and placed second, that’s an historic low, and the party remains reliant on aging supporters.
In the Kremlin today, President Putin described the election as another step toward democracy, but election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe disagreed. Citing the Kremlin’s strict control of the media, they said there was no level playing field on the campaign trail because state assets were used to promote United Russia.
The elections, they said, were a step back. And with Russia’s Democrats facing the tough task of starting over, their supporters find themselves increasingly worried that Vladimir Putin will now build on a record that includes jailing businessmen, charging academics with espionage, restricting the independent media, and discouraging dissent.
Lev Ponimiriov was a dissident in the 1980s who worked with the late Andrei Sakharov and other legendary thorns in the Soviet Union’s side.
LEV PONAMAREV ( Translated ): If Putin is elected president for a second term, he will simply continue his current policy. He will build a regime based around authoritarian rule. The people will support it more and more.
Eventually, every boss in the country will have a sculpture or picture of Putin on his desk. They will sing songs about Putin, and the people who will try to fight all this will slowly become enemies. I have no doubts about it at all.
SIMON MARKS: There seems no doubt that the way is now clear for Vladimir Putin to coast to victory in presidential elections in just three months’ time. Indeed, it’s hard to identify any national figure capable of mounting a serious challenge.
The communist party leader Gennady Zuganov is likely to run, and likely to go down to another defeat. As the winter snows envelope the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin can safely expect to occupy his office inside until at least the year 2008, and, should he wish to, possibly even beyond.