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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Investors Hear From a 'Dying Breed'

World Economic ForumYavlinsky called Russia a "sleeping volcano" that could erupt at any time.
Opposition leaders painted a grim picture of the nation's political landscape for a gathering of world business leaders on Monday, while a representative of the party of power reached back to Roman imperial history to justify the Kremlin's wide reach.

The discussion took place at the start of a two-day Moscow conference held by the World Economic Forum, a Geneva-based organization of leading global businesses, and attended by about 300 people from 26 countries. While other groups separately discussed corruption and competitiveness, three State Duma deputies devoted their attention to legislative moves that have consolidated Kremlin power and the prospects for upcoming elections.

Independent Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov -- who was introduced by the panel's moderator as "one of a dying breed," a reference to the elimination of single-mandate electoral districts in Duma elections -- immediately took issue with the claim that the country lacked a democratic tradition.

"It was precisely 100 years ago that our last tsar, Nicholas II, published the manifesto eliminating censorship, allowing the formation of political parties and unions, and allowing the public to hold demonstrations. Soon afterward, we had our first elections to the Duma," Ryzhkov said. "Russia in fact has a rich democratic tradition."

His assessment of the current state of affairs was less positive.

"In the past five years, Russia has made a huge step from democracy to totalitarianism," Ryzhkov said. He cited recent laws limiting citizens' ability to initiate referendums, requiring a minimum of 50,000 members to register political parties and raising the percentage of votes a party needs to gain Duma representation from 5 percent to 7 percent.

Ryzhkov cited personal experience in decrying what he called "total state control of national television. With a nod to the discussion's moderator, Sergei Brilyov of Rossia television, Ryzhkov said he had not been allowed to appear on Brilyov's analytical show for years.

"Guests are allowed to appear on Mr. Brilyov's program only with the sanction of the authorities," he said.

Brilyov was visibly uncomfortable.

Ryzhkov also announced that as of Monday, his liberal Republican Party had merged with a party formed by the Union of Soldiers' Mothers Committees. He said the merger gave the group a combined membership of 50,000, which would allow it to register as a party and take part in the 2007 parliamentary elections.

"The door to democracy in Russia is still open," Ryzhkov said.

Dmitry Rogozin, the chairman of the nationalist Rodina party spoke with evident pride of Rodina's growing popularity. "Though we are the youngest party in the State Duma, our membership has grown from 24,000 to 124,000 in just two years," Rogozin said.

Legislation making it more difficult for opposition parties to participate in elections "isn't a big problem for us," he said.

As Brilyov noted when introducing Rogozin, Rodina has had ambivalent relations to the Kremlin since its formation in 2003. The party began as a Kremlin strategy to draw support away from the Communist Party in that year's parliamentary elections, but it later took on an opposition role as its popularity grew.

Rogozin said a true opposition figure would have no chance in politics, since he would never be allowed on television and no one would give him money.

But even a pocket opposition figure could be dangerous, he said.

"Every opposition politician, even the most tamed, has his middle finger raised in his pocket," he said.

Rogozin criticized the pro-Kremlin United Russia party and elaborated on Ryzhkov's charges about Kremlin domination of the airwaves, but said that "for us, the main opponent is corruption."

He singled out Yelena Baturina, wife of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, whose construction business is the major player on the Moscow market.

"If that's not corruption, I don't know what is," Rogozin said. "Maybe I'm naive. Does Rudolph Giuliani's wife control the construction business in New York?"

Rogozin's party is challenging United Russia, which in Moscow is headed by Luzhkov, in the City Duma elections in December.

After a historical diversion into first-century Roman politics, United Russia Duma Deputy Vladimir Medinsky said that no party should hold a monopoly on power.

"The stronger, more organized and more constructive the opposition is, the better it is for the authorities," he said.

Political scientist Maria Mendras of the Paris-based Center for International Studies and Research said that talk about the distant past was a bad sign.

"I'm always a little concerned when there's only a few minutes to discuss urgent contemporary issues in Russia" and instead the past is used to justify the current state of affairs, Mendras said.

She said another bad sign was the formation of the Public Chamber, a recent Kremlin project meant to bridge the gap between civil society and the government.

"If you need a Public Chamber, does this mean that the State Duma has been deprived of its role?" she asked.

The deputies took an even dimmer view of the body.

"No one in Russian politics talks about the Public Chamber because no one takes it seriously," Ryzhkov said. "Not one reputable human rights activist has or will take part in it. ... It's a senseless farce."

After the panel, Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky said he saw little political initiative among the general population, but attributed it to a lack of options he compared to Soviet times.

"In Brezhnev's time, people voted for Breznev. In Stalin's time, people voted for Stalin. There's no alternative to Putin right now," Yavlinsky said.

Still, he compared Russia to "a sleeping volcano" that could erupt at any time and change the political landscape.

"Everyone who wants to have a harvest should plant in the spring," Yavlinsky said. "In Russia today, the weather is bad, but it's definitely spring."