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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

EDITORIAL: Loyalty Does Not Ensure Democracy




President Boris Yeltsin's decision to elevate his loyal flunky Sergei Stepashin to the post of first deputy prime minister has some worrying undercurrents for Russian democracy.


The Cabinet shuffle is itself a rather unremarkable piece of Kremlin intrigue. What is worrying is Stepashin's statement that he was appointed by Yeltsin to supervise State Duma elections this year and, perhaps, presidential elections in 2000.


Stepashin said he had been given the new brief because Yeltsin did not want "crooks, criminals and bandits to get in at the elections. I will work on this."


Yeltsin likes to style himself as a guarantor of Russian democracy but he has no business entrusting members of the government to carry out functions that are the responsibility of the Central Election Committee.


This body is chosen jointly by the Kremlin, the State Duma and the Federation Council, giving it the pretense of bi-partisanship and impartiality.


Its track record, however, does not inspire confidence. Over the past five years, the government has bullied it into ignoring obvious breeches of democratic process.


The crucial referendum on Russia's new constitution in 1993 was dogged by allegations of vote-fixing. More recently, in 1997 a poll for president of the region of Baskhortostan was allowed to proceed even though the Supreme Court ruled two candidates had been unfairly excluded from the ballot. In the same year, the election committee also connived to annul on a technicality elections for mayor of the city of Nizhny Novgorod, which were won by a businessman with enemies in the Kremlin.


Yeltsin was quite happy to tolerate these examples of bias. What likely worries him now is that he is losing his grip over the Central Election Committee and future bias will be to his disadvantage.


The old committee was more or less under the Kremlin's thumb, but earlier this year, Alexander Veshnyakov, a member of the left-wing Agrarian faction, was appointed chairman thanks to the votes of commissioners appointed by the Duma and the Federation Council.


Stepashin may now be trying to counterbalance the new election committee. This will be a good thing if it ensures rigorous application of new laws that force convicted criminals to disclose their records in campaign literature.


But the fear is that a revitalized Yeltsin does not intend to give up power when his mandate expires next year. Stepashin's new job sounds ominously like a license to mount a new dirty tricks campaign for the Duma elections.