December 24, 2003

Commentary

Russia: towards a more authoritarian regime?

By Emmanuelle Le Texier

The recent Russian legislative elections have reassured Russian President Vladimir Poutin in its position as the Head of one of the most powerful economic and political states in the world. United Russia, the political party that supports the President, won the majority of seats in the Duma (Assembly) by large. United Russia, with more than 36% of the votes, was followed by the Communist Party (13%) and the national-populist party (Liberal Democrat Party) of Vladimir Jirinovski (11,5%). The small liberal democratic political parties SPS and Iabloko did not reach the minimum 5% of the votes and will not have any parliamentary representatives. Vladimir Poutin and its government are now facing two main challenges to consolidate Russia position in the world affairs: economic growth in a liberalized market and democratic practices. Both reveals the current government’s authoritarian temptations.

First, Russia has to deal with a fragile economic growth. Five years after the 1998 Russia crisis, economic indicators show that the growth rate is positive (6%), the inflation is maintained at a 10% to 12% rate, and foreign investment are increasing. But this growth is almost entirely linked to the gas and oil production. The benefits are thus highly determined by the price of the crude oil barrel. Although international context currently favors high prices, around 28$ a barrel, they might suddenly decrease. In addition, the oil production is monopolized by twelve big companies, including Transneft, which are opposed to the market’s liberalization. In fact, Mikhaïl Khodorkovski, former executive director of Ioukos - an oil company - was detained on October 25. The Russian government accused him of corruption practices, but it was indeed a symbolical sign of the state’s opposition to any attack against its economic monopoly.

A second issue allows us to think that the Russian state wants to operate a ‘Staline-style capitalism’, as Iabloko’s president stated. In October 2003, during a meeting with German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, Russian president Vladimir Poutin strongly criticized “European bureaucrats who would like to impose unacceptable conditions” for the entry of Russia into the World Trade Organization (WTO). Russia, in possession of one third of world natural gas reserves, wants to keep selling the gas to its own national industries one sixth of the foreign sales prices. It does not plan to denationalize the gas sector monopolized by Gazprom. In fact, the government argues that a price increase would produce an economic, social and human disaster in a country where the average income is 160$ per capita.

At the same time, Russia has definitely chosen a liberalized market economy since 1991 and foreign investment are more than needed to modernize infrastructures and implement structural reform in the country. Russia is thus bargaining its entry in the WTO and has seemed to offer to sell its oil stocks to the European Union in Euros, not in Dollars. This currency shift would mean a strong support to the Euro zone, but the idea is totally opposed by the United States.

Second, the concentration of power in the hands of the President, the governing members and a few oligarchs might lead to an authoritarian shift in the country. The December electoral process was strongly criticized by opposition parties and international observers, especially the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe, because of the high levels of fraud, the lack of transparency in numerous poll places, and the partiality of the state media. In addition, Vladimir Poutin might have the desire to amend the 1993 Constitution that limits presidential mandates to two terms (of 4 years each), when the 2008 presidential elections get closer. Moreover, two days after Poutin’s electoral victory, a deadly terrorist attack took place near Chechnya, killing 42 people and injuring more than 150.

The Russian violent repression of Chechnya independent movement, denounced worldwide by human rights organizations is also a sign of the anti-democratic practices held by the state. Finally, the recent Georgia “revolution of the rose” that provoked the end of the Edouard Chevardnadze regime emphasized the role Russia had in supporting independent regions in Georgia and destabilizing central power of former soviet republics. Donald Rumsfeld, U.S. Secretary of Defense, visited Georgia interim president on December 5 and expressed its desire to see Russia respect its engagement of taking its military troops out of the country before the end of the year. Russian representative replied by demanding a 10 years period to complete the process. Democratization of the Russian political system is still a long way ahead. But only domestic democratic practices and economic growth based on multiple sources will allow the Russian population to better living conditions in an environment respectful of basic human rights.

Emmanuelle Le Texier is a guest scholar, Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies and Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, Ph.D. candidate in Sociology, Institut D’Etudes Politiques de Paris-France. She can be reached at eletexie@weber.ucsd.edu

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