Worn Out by Elections

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With the dust settling from the State Duma elections, all eyes have turned to the presidential election in March. But some in the Kremlin might be turning their thoughts to the presidential election in general -- as in getting rid of it altogether.

One thing seems clear when one looks back at the presidency of Vladimir Putin from the early assaults on independent media, the Yeltsin-era oligarchs and the recent Duma elections: It demonstrates a clear, almost step-by-step progression toward a closed, unaccountable and authoritarian political system. And such a system can never be complete when a figure as powerful as this president serves, at least theoretically, at the pleasure of the people.

The model for this type of reform was established in 2004, when the presidential administration produced a series of reforms that essentially created the current political system. In addition to reforms that brought the Duma under control, the Kremlin abolished the direct elections of regional heads and replaced it with a new system according to which they are confirmed by local legislatures after being nominated by Putin. Since that reform was implemented in 2005, virtually all regional leaders have undergone the test of Putin's confidence; disloyal ones have either changed their tune or have been replaced.

On the regional level, this reform created something of a perpetual-motion machine, as far as promoting the Kremlin's interests is concerned. That is, loyal regional heads -- with all their massive administrative resources -- have no trouble maintaining legislatures dominated by United Russia. Those legislatures, in turn, have proven compliant rubber stamps to all of Putin's "nominations," a compliance enforced by the provision of the law that enables Putin to disband any legislature that rejects his candidate. The Kremlin's control of regional administrations and legislatures could prove very handy if it decides to pursue major constitutional changes.

The Duma elections now set the stage for Putin's inner circle to further strengthen the political system by instituting a system under which, for example, the president is confirmed by the Duma from a nominee or nominees put forward by the leading faction in the parliament. Or by the Public Chamber, which can easily be made even more compliant than it is now. Or by some process involving the already-tamed regional legislatures, a scenario that would give the impression of being inclusive without introducing the danger of actually being inclusive. Or the Federation Council, which represents both the Kremlin-selected governors and the tamed legislatures, could present the nominee.

Whichever variant is chosen, its main feature will be a closed loop involving exclusively United Russia and the bureaucracy.

Interestingly, the elimination of the direct election of governors was presented as a response to the wave of horrific terrorist incidents that rocked the country in 2004, a wave that culminated in the Beslan school hostage taking. Those terrorist incidents were exploited by the presidential administration to introduce radical reforms to the political system in the name of national security.

An analogous situation seems to be unfolding now. One of the main themes of the Kremlin's Duma campaign was its often savage anti-Westernism. Putin's national-security state was portrayed widely and consistently as the reliable bulwark against a tide of foreign enemies plotting the dismemberment of the country and the pillaging of its national resources. This fear mongering was perhaps best encapsulated by a Rossia television special report called "Barkhat.ru," which was broadcast in prime time at least twice since the end of September and alleged that the CIA was using nongovernmental organizations and opposition politicians to foment a revolution in Russia.

This kind of rhetoric has continued unabated since the elections ended, with the radical Nashi group handing out leaflets in Moscow repeating the same allegations. Putin himself has hinted that the negative assessments of foreign election monitors were part of an effort to undermine Russia's unique form of democracy. With the experience of Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan being constantly vilified in the state media, it is easy for the Kremlin to make the case publicly that elections themselves are the Achilles heel of Russian sovereignty. Taking such decisions out of the hands of the public can be depicted as a national-security measure.

There has been a wave of change-the-constitution analyses moving through the Russian infosphere in recent months. In one such piece, Mikhail Remizov, an analyst with the conservative National Strategy Institute, argued recently that a new constitution must be written that makes it clear that Russia is not a product of the Enlightenment. He argues that Russia must disentangle itself from the Western conception of human rights, which he argues have become "a master key for desovereignization." The new constitution must be written in such a way as to make sure that human rights "will cease to be lever of political interference."

In one of his first statements following the Duma vote, Putin brought up the issue of elections. "It is unfortunate that one election campaign here is piled up on top of another -- the presidential one," he said. "People are already tired of all sorts of political technologies and political advertising. Maybe the new Duma needs to think about how to divorce these two campaigns in the future. It is important that the country not get burdened with an endless series of elections."

This statement has had analysts scrambling to determine whether Putin's solution to this problem is to disband the Duma early and hold early parliamentary elections. Perhaps he would encourage the next president to resign early so that early presidential elections could be held, in which Putin himself might run for a third, nonconsecutive term. Or perhaps the president is thinking of a more wholesale and radical approach to the "burden" of elections.

For months now, journalists and Russia watchers have been asking Putin about the country's political future, including whether he will run for a third term. And, although he has been evasive in his answers, he has also avoided, so far, openly lying. Maybe now is the time for someone to ask him point-blank whether he and United Russia are prepared to guarantee the protection of the people's right to directly elect the president of their country.

Robert Coalson is a Russia analyst for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, based in Prague.