A Russian travesty

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There is no doubt about who is going to win the elections for the Russian state Duma next weekend. The party known as United Russia, whose list is topped by President Vladimir Putin, is heading for a landslide victory. The latest polls give the “party of power” between 62 and 67 per cent of the vote. Its nearest rival, the Communist party of Russia, is likely to get about 14 per cent. Only two other parties, the arch-nationalist Liberal Democrats and the centre-left Just Russia, loyal creatures of the Kremlin, stand any chance of securing the 7 per cent needed to enter parliament.

Given such a foregone conclusion, it is hard to understand why the Russian authorities are fighting such a foul election campaign. Yet in the system of “managed democracy” espoused by Mr Putin, nothing can be left to chance.

The president and his pals dominate the airwaves of all the national television channels. Their artificial parties are registered and their rallies officially protected. Opposition parties are allowed to take part in token TV debates in which the ruling party declines to participate. The tiny minority parties, which hold to values that would be recognised as genuinely democratic outside Russia, are harassed as if they were a threat to the state. Peaceful protesters, such as Garry Kasparov, the chess grand master, are jailed on flimsy charges.

The most professional team of election observers in Europe, from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, has pulled out of attempting to monitor the election campaign. The Russian government insisted its numbers be cut from 400 to 70, and then failed to deliver visas when they were promised.

On Monday Mr Putin blamed the US government for the decision to pull the observers out, in yet another example of how he has sought to demonise foreign influences in his campaign. Earlier he accused his opponents of “sponging off foreign embassies” to promote a “weak, sick state” and “a disoriented, divided society”.

It is hard to know whether such invective is a product of paranoia or mere cynicism. Mr Putin’s advisers seem to fear a popular uprising in Russia like the Orange revolution in neighbouring Ukraine. Yet there is little to suggest such a danger exists. Mr Putin is genuinely popular for bringing stability to Russia, even if his “managed democracy” is a travesty. Life has improved for most Russians, thanks to high energy prices. But the powers in the Kremlin do not trust democracy. They only understand how to fix the result, just as they used to do.

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