(Washington, DC -- March 9, 2004) The upcoming presidential election in Russia on March 14 will not bring about any significant political change in that country, a panel of Russia experts told a recent RFE/RL audience. The panel, which included Dr. Robert Orttung of American University, RFE/RL Senior Analyst for Russia Julie Corwin, and RFE/RL Communications Director Donald Jensen, concluded that the election will be managed by an increasingly corrupt political elite, which in turn decreases the level of voter participation and democracy in Russia.
Orttung addressed what he sees as the "failure" of Russian President Vladimir Putin's "anti-corruption" policy, reflected in the gradual decrease in the level of voter participation. Orttung argued that presidential policies such as media restrictions serve to increase corruption by stifling the growth of civil society. He noted that a "link [exists] between participation in elections and fighting corruption and economic inequality." Furthermore, according to Orttung, inequality is growing among Russia's regions is increasing, the state has few prosecutions and mutual interest in corruption exists.
This rise in corruption has helped to turn the election into a "farce," according to Corwin. Corwin pointed out that the Kremlin's "recruitment and creation" of opposing candidates to run against Putin, the nomination of "3rd-tier candidates" by both the Communist Party and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party and the existence of a "biased" media environment that fosters a belief by the opposition that "there is no hope that [it] will get their message across" all add to a widespread perception that the election result is a foregone conclusion. Corwin added that the presidential election is only the latest example of a long term trend in Russia toward "decorative democracy."
The high level of corruption and biased electoral system have served to restrict the number of choices available to Russian voters in this presidential election, Jensen said. He argued that the elections must be viewed from a "Russian paradigm" that is "full of informal connections" and characterized by a "very elite based game, with free flowing alliances" centered around financial interests. Jensen argued that while the election will legitimize the right of the winner to rule, the electoral outcome serves primarily as a way to gauge the relative power of competing elites. Jensen also noted that the current elite-based political system in Russia is unstable and will give the winner of the presidential election very little room to rule on the basis of any perceived electoral mandate.
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