The March 2 presidential election in Russia, in which the pro-Kremlin candidate, Dmitry A. Medvedev, will undoubtedly win about 70 percent of the vote, has triggered a competition among Western journalists: who would paint the election in the darkest colors? The adjectives like "undemocratic", "unfair" and "fake" were used abundantly. The very noun "election" was rarely employed and was routinely replaced with "parody", "coronation", "farce" or "sham."
It seems that the most upsetting aspect of the election has been the lack of what the Financial Times called "effective opposition."
This is an interesting term. There were three candidates running against Medvedev. The candidacy of Andrei Bogdanov was undeniably a joke. But for Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist leader, this was the third presidential contest; in 1996, Zyuganov lost to Boris Yeltsin only in the second round of the vote. For Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, this election was his fourth. Both the Communist Party and LDPR — the two oldest political parties in Russia — control more than 20% of the seats in the State Duma, the lower chamber of the Russian parliament. An "ineffective opposition"?
There is little doubt about whom the Financial Times would like to have seen on the ballot and, ideally (however improbably), as the new Kremlin boss. One of the darlings of the Western saviors of Russia’s democracy is Mikhail Kasyanov, the leader of the non-existent People’s Democratic Union, whose campaign has failed to collect two million signatures required by the law to register the candidate. The other one is Garry Kasparov, a former chess great and now a full-time hooligan, who has been unable to even rent a room in Moscow to hold a meeting of his supporters. Neither Kasyanov or Kasparov have ever registered more than 1 or 2 percent in any public opinion poll.
Is this what the Financial Times calls "effective opposition"?
In every democratic society, the election is not only a tool of the political system; it’s also its mirror. True, there was no "effective opposition" in the election, but not because the malicious Kremlin has "squeezed it out." It is because there is NO meaningful opposition to the Putin regime and its ideology in today’s Russia.
The abundant political pluralism of the 90’s — which Putin’s critics are never tired to point to — was a reflection of intense public discussions on Russia’s future and the strategic direction the country had to follow. The Communists called for continuing with a Soviet Union-style welfare state. So-called "democrats" dreamed about unconditional integration of Russia into Western institutions at the cost of the country loosing its sovereignty.
By now, this discussion is over. President Putin and the political forces currently associated with the United Russia party had proposed the concept of "sovereign democracy", advocating a socially-oriented market economy based on national business and an independent course in international relationships. These policies are supported by the vast majority of Russian voters. True, the Communists still command a support of about 10-15 percent of the voters. But the "effective opposition" the Financial Times is craving has no public support whatsoever. Artificially placing them on the ballot would be a perfect example of a "sham election."
In today’s Russia, there is no major political or ideological issue that divides the country. Can anyone imagine Russians fighting over the issue of abortions or same-sex marriages? Absurd! But in the United States, these issues would make you either a Democrat or Republican.
The ideological divide will inevitably come, the role of the state in the economy and/or ways to fight corruption being the most likely next "Big Issue". The political divide will follow, and the next electoral cycle will witness the creation of a meaningful — call it "effective" — opposition to the Medvedev regime. Just don’t expect ghosts of the past on the ballot, regardless of how the Financial Times calls them next time.