Putin’s Landslide

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Putin’s Landslide

by Eric Margolis by Eric Margolis

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As expected, Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party won a landslide victory in yesterday’s parliamentary elections, garnering over 63% of the vote as of this writing, which will give it 70% of the seats in the Duma, or national assembly.

The Communist Party won only 11.6%. Its leader, Gennady Zuganov, cried foul, claiming the elections were fraudulent, a pretty rich accusation from the party that never held an honest vote in its entire history.

Two other small parties that vote with Putin’s United Russia gained about 15% of the vote. One of them is led by the Russian neo-fascist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Liberal, western-oriented parties were shut out.

President Vladimir Putin’s earthy phrases seemed to have captured Russia’s current muscular mood. Reacting to sharp western criticism of Russia’s parliamentary elections, Putin, playing "Vlad the Bad," warned western powers not to "poke their snotty noses" in his nation’s business.

Putin, who has been increasingly outspoken of late, mocked President George Bush’s double standard in accusing Russia of dubious elections, squashing opposition, and roughing up dissenters while ignoring similar behavior by US ally Georgia. He could have also added other key US clients like Pakistan, Egypt, Algeria, Iraq, Morocco, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan.

The decision by the US-backed dictator of Pakistan, former Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to exclude former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from January elections made Washington’s rebuking of Moscow look particularly two-faced.

President Putin was right to tell off western critics and limit foreign observation of Russian elections. Russia is a great, historic power, not some banana republic. If western observers were really needed to supervise votes in Moscow, Omsk and Kaluga, then why shouldn’t Russian observers supervise America’s sometimes dodgy elections? For example, in Chicago, where the dead routinely vote; in Florida, where blacks are turned away; or Ohio where rigged voting machines gave Republicans victory in 2004 elections.

It would be better if we dropped the pretense that Russia conducts free, fair, western-style elections. Elections under former US protégé Boris Yeltsin were all rigged or voters bought. Today, Russian opposition parties have almost no funding, they are excluded from most media, which is largely government controlled. Parties winning less than 7% of the vote are excluded, and there is no independent electoral commission.

Sunday’s vote was really a referendum on President Putin’s popularity. Most polls show him with 70—80% approval, making Putin one of the world’s most successful and admired leaders. Election returns confirmed this fact, particularly among young Russians.

Former intelligence officer Putin and his KGB old boys network have worked wonders for Russia. After a coup that ousted the sick, besotted Yeltsin, Putin inherited a bankrupt, demoralized nation subsisting on cash handouts from Washington. So low did "Weimar" Russia sink, much of its advanced military technology was sold to the US for large cash payoffs.

Thanks to tough management, nationalizations, and rising oil prices caused in part by George Bush’s foolhardy invasion of Iraq, Russia’s national income more than tripled under Putin, and the ruble became a hard currency. Equally important, Putin restored pride and sense of dignity to this fiercely chauvinistic nation.

In the process, he centralized all power in the Kremlin, muzzled the independent press, intimidated opponents, jailed oligarchs, and created a cult of personality. He ruthlessly crushed the life out of independence-seeking Chechnya, thrilling Muslim-hating Russians by vowing to "kill the Chechen bandits in their shithouses." Russians simply didn’t care about the atrocities their soldiers and police committed against the Chechen, whom they branded "terrorists," any more than Americans cared about the vast suffering they inflicted on Iraq and Afghanistan.

Most Russians couldn’t care less about the feeble little liberal parties clamoring for western-style democracy. It’s a sad truism that Russians want order, economic progress and national pride, not democracy. Judo champion, abstemious Putin fits this bill perfectly as the historic "white czar," a good, fatherly autocrat who is strong, manly, and pure.

To most Russians, "democracy" is associated with the thieving oligarchs who pillaged Russia’s industries and resources during Yeltsin’s rule, and the ivory-tower economists who debauched Russia’s currency, leaving millions of pensioners to starve.

Democracy is also seem by many Russians as a Trojan Horse the US used to assert financial and political influence over Russia, and later in Ukraine, Georgia and Central Asia. Meanwhile, President Bush’s policies of ordering NATO around the way the Soviets treated the old Warsaw Pact, pushing NATO to Russia’s western borders, and the daft scheme to emplace US ABM systems in the Czech Republic and Poland enflamed Russia’s nationalist passions and reignited its historic fears of western threats.

Putin says he wants to continue leading Russia. But he is constitutionally banned from a third presidential term. So does Putin plan to run Russia as an all-powerful prime minister? As leader of his United Russia Party? Will he become a youthful elder statesman? Or will he simply get the Duma to change the constitution?

He may follow the example of Czar Ivan the Terrible, temporarily withdrawing from public life until throngs of supplicants beg him to return to Moscow as Czar.

Or he could just remain Citizen Vladimir Putin. The only formal title the great Deng Xiaoping held when he so brilliantly ruled China was Chairman of the Chinese Bridge Association. But no one doubted for a second who ran China.

Whatever Putin’s near-term political plans, he clearly intends to restore Russia’s role as a world power, and to challenge US global domination. Russia’s withdrawal last week from the European conventional arms treaty is the latest ominous sign.

President Putin wants to restore the old Soviet Union’s borders, but minus the Communist Party, which has sunk miserably low public support. Putin believes Russia’s vast energy and mineral resources will eventually make it the world’s leading power. Only 55 years old, Putin might even live to see this triumphant day for Mother Russia.

Eric Margolis [send him mail], contributing foreign editor for Sun National Media Canada, is the author of War at the Top of the World. See his website.

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