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Last modified: Thursday, February 19, 2004

Russia's presidential election seems certain, but its democratic future remains in doubt

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- While Americans wait for Bush vs. Kerry or Edwards, Russian voters are preparing to go to the polls to elect their next president.

And while the March 14 election seems a foregone conclusion -- a landslide victory for popular incumbent Vladimir Putin -- several analysts, including Indiana University Bloomington political scientist Henry Hale, have been keeping close tabs on the current Russian election cycle with the understanding that it may have far-reaching implications for the future of democracy in that country.

Hale will be among the scholars discussing Russia's democratic future at a two-day workshop at IUB beginning Feb. 28. The "Kremlin Power and the 2003-04 Russian Elections" workshop will introduce fresh research related to Russian elections and allow for new perspectives on what the current election cycle means for the study of Russian democracy.

"Right now there's this feeling that there's no real campaign in Russia, because so much of the campaign has been stifled," said Hale, assistant professor of political science and editor of Russian Election Watch, a monthly bulletin that provides analysis of the 2003-04 Russian parliamentary and presidential elections. "This is due to the way the state has taken control of the electoral process. It's not outright authoritarianism, but the state has taken indirect control over the things that make elections free and fair, mainly the media."

Hale said that the government's power over three of Russia's major television networks has led to overwhelmingly positive coverage of Putin. It also helped produce huge victories for the Putin-endorsed United Russia party in the December 2003 parliamentary elections. In addition to further consolidating Russia's political system (United Russia now controls over 300 seats in the Duma), the December elections proved that Russia is a one-man show with Putin firmly in command. The incumbent is virtually unchallenged in the presidential race, with all major parties either declining to nominate anyone or tapping minor candidates for the race.

Additionally, Hale said that Russia's powerful regional leaders have almost all fallen into line, either joining with United Russia or allying with it. The opposition parties have been virtually decimated. The leftist opposition, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), lost more than half of its members of parliament in the December election, and the liberal opposition parties have all but disappeared from the Duma.

The biased television coverage is just one of the restrictions on Russian democracy, Hale said. The continued dependency of big businesses on government is another. "Even if the government doesn't directly prohibit giving money to an opposition party, businesses would be taking a big risk if they did so," Hale said.

It would be easy to dismiss Putin's popularity (recent polls show him at 75 to 80 percent) as a product of the aura of fear the former KGB spy and his followers have created. However, Hale believes Putin's popularity is genuine, even if his economic policies, which include a 13 percent flat tax that frightens even the most conservative U.S. lawmakers, aren't held in high regard. "Putin's own popularity is consistently stronger than the levels of support for his policies," he said. "Russians see a strong leader who is dynamic, tough and willing to take action. He has a certain kind of charisma, not a bombastic charisma, akin to what (Bill) Clinton had. Russians sense that he sympathizes with them, and yet he can still talk tough."

Hale said that the powerful Putin could have an enormous effect on Russia's democratic future, especially if he decides to run for a third term. To run for office again, Putin would need to extend the presidential term, which he could do since the United Russia party has more than enough seats to pass constitutional amendments. Putin has publicly said he supports Russia's presidential term limit, despite reports to the contrary. If Putin runs again, "we might not see democracy in Russia for a while," Hale said. "But if he steps aside, we may see more battles, maybe between factions of the pro-Putin forces, which could then open the way for an opposition party to emerge."

Still, Hale said that other political battles may develop in the years between this and the next presidential election. He points to the fierce competition that occurred during parliamentary elections between 1996, when Boris Yeltsin won a second term as president, and 2000, when Putin was chosen to succeed him. According to Hale, these races included enough dirty tricks to cause American Republicans and Democrats to blush, not to mention attempts to confuse voters (such as covertly nominating candidates with the exact same first, middle and last name as your opponent) that make the Palm Beach, Fla., ballot seem perfectly clear in comparison.

Hale is tracking the competition at local levels of government, which he says has actually increased in recent years. "With the presidential race, the potential real rivals all bowed out. But we did see some real battles in the parliamentary elections," Hale said. "If the Kremlin can control national politics, the opposition can see hope in local areas. There are a lot of interesting dynamics at the regional level, which raises the question -- do regional governments provide the basis for future democracy in Russia?"

Hale said he hopes to learn more about the potential for democracy in Russia through new surveys designed to gauge the attitudes of Russian voters, particularly their attitudes toward Putin and the current autocracy. These surveys will be presented at the workshop.

Hale will be joined at the workshop by several leading Russian political analysts, including Timothy Colton, professor of government and Russian studies at Harvard University; Julie Corwin, a senior analyst for Radio Free Europe; Vladimir Gelman, a professor at the European University at St. Petersburg; Robert Orttung, a professor at American University and editor of the Russian Regional Report; and Nikolay Petrov of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

For a complete list of the panelists, topics of discussion and registration information, visit