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The New Russia

A lot like the old Russia.

11:00 PM, Jan 22, 2008 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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EXCLUDING THE LITTLE more than symbolic access to the political process granted to a few small opposition groups, the pro-Kremlin United Russia party has assumed a monopoly on the Russian political sphere much like that enjoyed by the old Communist party of the Soviet Union. It is widely expected that Russian President Vladimir Putin will assume some senior position in this party, if not as its general secretary, once the Russian presidential elections are held in March and his hand-picked successor, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, assumes the presidency.

Medvedev, who is expected to cruise to an easy victory since there are no other credible candidates, has also already asked Putin to be his prime minister, which effectively leaves power in the hands of the same individuals that are running the country now.

The old saying is that "absolute power corrupts absolutely," but when this is played out in the new Russia--supposedly governed by a "dictatorship of the law"--everyone tries to get in on the action.

It was announced on January 14 that two senior United Russia officials were dismissed over "possible" financial fraud linked to Medvedev's presidential campaign. Sergei Zhiltsov and Vladimir Barinov, members of the party's executive committee, are suspected of "financial machinations" for posting requests for campaign contributions to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) friendly to the first deputy PM.

Normally, soliciting campaign contributions is not considered a crime, but the problem with these letters was that they all went out before Medvedev had officially registered as a candidate. Asking for money for a person who has not even yet announced his candidacy would have left the money collected in a dubious legal status--as in it could have been taken and spent however the persons collecting it were inclined.

Calls to Zhiltsov's United Russia office went unanswered Monday. United Russia has since revised its entry rules for new applicants, said the head of the party's executive committee, Andrei Vorobyov, in a story in the Moscow paper Vedomosti. As of now some previous participation in party activities--such as making donations or membership in a professional union--and an interview will be among the new requirements.

But one does wonder just why a man with Medvedev's personal wealth cannot afford (ala Mitt Romney) to be self-financing. His need for any substantive campaign expenditures also remains a mystery. None of the other candidates who are running will receive any significant coverage from the Kremlin-controlled media, leaving no apparent rationale for Medvedev to buy advertising in the first place.

Another Moscow paper, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, reported the day after the United Russia scandal that the Russian central television channels are already giving "complete supremacy" to Medvedev and have marginalized the other presidential candidates. The paper's count was that the main channels mentioned Medvedev 344 times during the two week period that ended 13 January. The leader of the nationalistic Liberal Democratic party of Russia, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, was second with 96 references. (Zhirinovsky is not considered to be a serious candidate and his party almost always backs the actions of the Kremlin, so he does not really qualify as an "opposition" candidate. Hence the mention of his name rather frequently compared to the other candidates running against Medvedev.)

Medvedev received 12 hours of media coverage in this same period. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, who came close to unseating former President Boris Yeltsin in 1996, was given only two hours. Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who is considered one of the only serious opposition candidates, was heard on state television only two times during the two-week period compared to 172 appearances for Medvedev.

Other candidates who had been running for the March 2008 balloting have since dropped out, namely former First Deputy PM Boris Nemtsov, on the grounds that participating in such a blatantly undemocratic election with a pre-determined outcome only lends credibility to a process that does not deserve it. Nemtsov had encouraged Kasyanov to drop out as well, but on Thursday the former PM delivered boxes of the required 2 million signatures needed for registration as a presidential candidate to the Central Election Commission.

Kasyanov has vowed to stay in the race at all costs. "People sharing this attitude are urging me to go to the end. This is a great responsibility, and I cannot drop my decision now. Therefore, I will not quit," he said to the Russian Interfax news service.