|Activists are rallying against a potential third presidential term for Putin: 'I am for Russia without Putin' [EPA]
Moscow, Russia - When Russians head to the polls this Sunday to elect a new parliament, they will have a lot on their minds. Well, at least those who have decided not to vote for the ruling party, United Russia. And, judging by the latest opinion polls, that could be at least 60 per cent of voters, as only about 30 to 40 per cent of people are ready to cast their ballots in favour of the party in power.
But other than these unusually low ratings (United Russia won 64.3 per cent of the vote in 2007's election), you would be forgiven if you may think time has stood still in the past four years of Russia's political life. All seven parties running this time contested the 2007 elections (one under a different name). And the same four parties now represented in the state Duma are again expected to pass the seven per cent threshold and secure seats.
Opposing the ruling United Russia Parties are The Communist Party of Russia, the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party, the social-democratic A Just Russia, the liberal Yabloko and Right Cause parties and the left-leaning Patriots of Russia.
So on the surface, Russian voters face a full-spectrum of political parties to choose from to represent them in the country's top legislative body. But critics say this picture of a functioning multi-party democracy does not match the reality. Real opposition, they say, does not exist, claiming that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's notion of a "managed democracy" has also extended to "managing" the opposition.
United Russia's dominance
The election slogan of Russia's Communist Party:
'December 4: Time to change those in power!' [KPRF]
Critics also say this seeming plurality does not actually translate into a real debate in parliament or diversity of legislative initiatives. And that's because, even combined, the three parties that made it to the previous Duma have been no match for the dominant United Russia. In the previous Duma, the party in power held 315 of 450 seats, a two-thirds majority, which allowed it to pass any bill proposed by the Kremlin. In fact, the previous Duma was so obedient that it passed more bills that came from the executive branch of the government than those the lawmakers proposed themselves.
This dominance of United Russia and its readiness to toe the Kremlin line has also allowed the Duma to shoot down any initiatives that came from the opposition and did not sit well with Russia's rulers, for example, a bill on progressive taxation, pushed by the social-democratic A Just Russia. The country's oligarchs, the bill said, must pay more than the flat 13 per cent rate currently required of all income-earners in Russia. "The bill failed," says party member and Duma deputy Aleksandr Burkov, because "the 'trade union' of oligarchs and bureaucrats - United Russia - voted against it".
But United Russia says this dominance and ability to push through laws quickly is what saved Russia from experiencing the full blow of the ongoing financial crisis. Last week, Putin told the United Russia faction that if "leading political forces" could not come to an agreement, the country would risk a Greek-style debt crisis.
"If we fragment our parliament, it will not be able to make the necessary decisions in the necessary time ... At some point this will drag us to the line behind which our friends and partners in Europe now find themselves," he said.
The party of oligarchs
This argument, however, does not hold up with the opposition - who accuse the Kremlin and United Russia of protecting the rich. Gennadiy Zyuganov, the leader of the Communists, Russia's largest and oldest party, said: "The financial-economic course of the country is designed not to protect the interests of workers, but to serve the oligarchs, whose party is United Russia."
Vladimir Zhirinovsky (l) appears on the TV debate with United Russia's Alexander Khilshtein [LDPR]
And the flamboyant leader of the nationalist LDPR, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, does not mince his words either. "Your faction in the Duma is made up half of criminal businessmen and half of former KGB agents," he yelled at a United Russia member during a recent televised debate, dangling a pair of handcuffs. "You've been fleecing this country for 12 years. You’ve been lying for 12 years and breaking all the promises you've given to improve the people's lives."
Systemic vs non-systemic opposition
But for other opposition voices, such criticism and debates simply amount to a political show. They say the opposition has been tamed by the Kremlin and it is only allowed to exist with its approval. These critics have even come up with a special term for the parliamentary parties (those in the Duma). They call them "systemic opposition" or part of the system created by Putin. So it is, they say, only logical to call themselves, "non-systemic" or "the real opposition" in Russia.
These critical voices include Boris Nemtsov, a former Russian prime minister and a co-leader of the Party of People's Freedom (Parnas). In June this year, Russian election officials rejected the party's registration documents, effectively barring it from contesting the poll.
Nemstov says the decision was politically motivated, because the Kremlin could not bear to give the go ahead to the party that accuses Putin of creating a deeply corrupt system that benefits him personally as well as a tight circle of his close associates. All the parties that are allowed to participate in these elections are not independent, writes Nemtsov in his blog.
His fellow opposition leader, former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, agrees: "All these parties are 100 per cent under Kremlin control. We know these people, they are not newcomers, they have been around for 20 years. It is clear they are no longer in the position to challenge the Kremlin. Voting for them is to vote for puppets in this theatre of the absurd."
And as if to support these assertions, just three days before the vote, a high-ranking election official told the English-language daily The Moscow Times that United Russia had struck a deal under which the other three parliamentary parties (the Communists, the LDPR, and A Just Russia) are "pretending to play the opposition" in exchange for guarantees that they will secure seats in the next Duma. "They want to preserve the status quo," he said. "And to achieve that they have agreed to play the roles the Kremlin has given them in this farce." The offical asked for anonymity in fear of reprisal.
The anti-United Russia campaign urges voters: 'Definitely come to cast your ballot and vote for any party but United Russia!' [rosagit]
No 'none of the above'
And this is why, in the run-up to to these elections, the nation's non-systemic opposition parties have been calling on Russians not to vote for any political party. But in Russia, the "None of the Above" option on a ballot paper was abolished in 2006, creating somewhat of a dilemma for opposition politicians. For months, they argued about what election strategy to adopt, crossing their virtual swords on the pages of their blogs.
'Anyone but United Russia'
On one hand, there is Alexei Navalny, a Yale-educated lawyer, famous blogger, whistleblower and anti-corruption activist who coined the phrase "The Party of Swindlers and Thieves" to describe United Russia. His motto is "Anyone But United Russia."
"The correct strategy," he said - back in September during the opposition's debates on election strategy - "would be to create a united political space and to act against United Russia together, all of us, systemic and non-systemic opposition."
Just three days before the vote, Navaln wrote a detailed blog entry urging civic-minded Russians to call on at least five people they know to vote against United Russia. "Talk to your grandma and talk to your auntie," he writes. "Print out flyers, send out text messages, even providing links to a collection of anti-United Russia posters. "Don't campaign for any specific party. Only urge to vote against the Party of Swindlers and Thieves and its political monopoly".
'Vote against all! Vote for Russia!'
But Nemtsov and others says this strategy is naïve, and the only way to protest against Putin's United Russia is by spoiling ballot papers and actually putting a cross in boxes next to the titles of all seven parties. "To vote for any party - those who will get into the Duma and those who won't - is to give legitimacy to the disgusting farce that these elections have become," writes Nemtsov.
He has even created a group, with other fellow opposition-minded liberals - such as political satirist Viktor Shenderovich - named Nakh-Nakh. It makes a reference to a popular fairtale about three little piglets, one of whom was called "Naf-Naf". It is also a play on a strong Russian expletive for refusal. The Cyrilic "KH" corresponds to the Latin "X" - a symbol with which they want voters to void their ballots.
They have even come up with a series of online cartoons, dubbed "Common Adverntures of the Piglet Nah-Nah in Putin's Russia". This one shows the piglet who goes to a polling station and sees Putin's face everywhere, even on the ballot paper. Engraged, the piglet puts a cross in all boxes next to all parties. "Put a cross on the crooks in power," urges a voice at the end of the clip. "Vote against all! Vote for Russia!"
Another shows the piglet trying to get on a merry-go-round - with faces of the same Russian politicans, leaders of parliamentary parties, who simply change places as Putin sits atop the fairground ride.
Those cartoons attempt to portray what Russia's opposition says is wrong with the kind of "managed democracy" that Russia seems to have become: a fixed set of political parties appearing likely to again secure Duma seats, but with little real ability to challenge the ruling party; opposition forces that have no way of contesting the elections, fragmented by internal arguments and prevented from presenting a unified front; and, finally, satire and the internet seemingly the only space where genuine political debate is still allowed to take place in Putin's Russia.