Comments on the past week’s developments in Russian politics

The electoral authorities have rejected a referendum on the two-term limit. The United Russia party has recruited Vladimir Kolesnikov. The Communist Party has invited all opposition parties to sign an anti-corruption pact. Alexander Sivyakov has been convicted of crippling Private Andrei Sychev.

“Personally, I’m in favor of treating the Constitution of the Russian Federation with the greatest respect,” said Central Electoral Commission (CEC) Chairman Alexander Veshnyakov after the CEC concluded that a civic organization’s proposal for a referendum on extending President Vladimir Putin’s period in office would be pointless.

The CEC’s decision means that there will not be a referendum on a third term. Even the most zealous citizens wouldn’t have time to organize such a referendum before December 7; and the law prohibits referendums in the final year of the parliament’s term.

According to the CEC, the proposed referendum question (“Do you agree that the same individual may not hold the office of president for more than two consecutive terms?”) is simply pointless. After all, if most citizens vote yes, the Constitution would remain unchanged and Putin would still have to step down. And if citizens vote no, it isn’t clear what would follow from that. According to the law, a negative answer to a referendum question means that citizens haven’t really made any decision at all. Well, so they don’t agree with the question – what next?

Consequently, if any enterprising citizens want to keep Putin as president until 2012 (or forever), they must now master the basics of parliamentary lobbying and somehow force the United Russia faction’s 300-odd members to vote in favor of the relevant bill, submitted by the legislature of Chechnya.

Otherwise, the unthinkable will happen: in May 2008, Putin will step down for a well-earned rest; Russia will be shaken by defaults, tsunamis, and the tyranny of oligarchs; and the whole world will find itself on the brink of World War III, the Second Coming, and simultantous collectivization accompanied by famine. And the Duma majority, headed by Speaker Boris Gryzlov, is leading us into that scenario. They claim that they don’t want to amend the Constitution “to suit Putin,” and justify their own political shortsightedness with silly excuses like “Putin himself doesn’t want it!” Actually, United Russia members don’t seem to be concerned about the political survival of anyone but themselves; they couldn’t care less about the president’s fate.

Meanwhile, United Russia is recruiting some prominent musicians. As Gryzlov has announced, United Russia recently signed a “cooperation agreement” with the band Liube (or “the creative team of Liube,” as United Russia’s website puts it), and “with Nikolai Vyacheslavovich Rastorguyev” personally – he was immediately accepted as a party member. The plan is for United Russia and “the creative team of Liube” (why not Klave?) to take on a terribly important task: “developing patriotic instruction among young people.” Not just instructing, but “developing” instruction.

At the same time as Rastorguyev, another person was accepted into the party: Vladimir Kolesnikov, former deputy prosecutor general, now a humble advisor to the justice minister. His contribution to party-building has also been clearly defined. According to Gryzlov, Kolesnikov will “conduct in-depth research and offer recommendations on establishing the strongest possible barriers to prevent any party from nominating candidates with links to organized crime.” As Gryzlov put it, “we would like to inform voters if any such attempts are made.” This is understandable: compromising materials are a powerful weapon in campaign battles, and Kolesnikov’s many years of experience in the law enforcement system have left him with plenty of dirt on plenty of people.

All the same, it seems that United Russia is failing to think big: they’re so happy about recruiting the justice minister’s adviser. Why not recruit Justice Minister and former Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov himself, preferably with all his bureaucratic allies – that should wipe out crime entirely!

As things are, the situation is confusing. The Communist Party, for example, has invited all opposition parties to sign an anti-corruption pact. As the Communists point out, reasonably enough, corruption is primarily found in the seat of power. And we all know which party holds the seat of power. Thus, the anti-corruption pact could well become an anti-United Russia movement. It all goes to show that if matters are properly organized, no Vladimirs are required at all – neither Lenin nor Kolesnikov.

But not all parties are taking the thorny path of fighting corruption. Some have simply decided to fight for the people’s happiness. Prominent among them is Patriots of Russia. This party’s leader, Gennadi Semigin, is certainly a unique individual. There is reason to believe that his insights are responsible for the party’s proposed “national idea for the Russian people.” It sounds somewhat complicated: “Justice for all and happiness for everyone!” Fortunately, Semigin provided a partial explanation in his speech at the Patriots of Russia congress: “The first key component of the national idea is to restore justice in Russia, and the second component is the happiness of every citizen.” All we need to know now is whether there will be “a man for every woman” and “a half-liter of vodka for every man.” Surely those questions are directly relevant to justice and happiness.

Justice is such a delicate matter that one hesitates to evaluate it. Still, sometimes this has to be done. For example, the Chelyabinsk Military Garrison Court has issued a four-year sentence to Junior Sergeant Alexander Sivyakov, found guilty of “exceeding authority, with grave consequences” (the consequences affecting Private Andrei Sychev, crippled as a result of Sivyakov’s “excesses”). Sivyakov has also been stripped of his junior sergeant rank and will not be allowed to hold any commanding officer rank in the Russian Armed Forces for three years (apparently, the time has not yet come to let such people back into the Army).

Neither the plaintiffs (Sychev’s family) nor Sivyakov’s defense lawyers consider this sentence fair. The attitudes on either side are understandable. If Sivyakov really did cripple a man, a four-year sentence is clearly a mockery of justice. But if all the evidence against him is rigged, and this whole story is “the result of actions by certain powerful forces,” as Sivyakov’s lawyer put it, then those “forces” need to be sorted out.

Some said, for example, that the Sychev case was a conspiracy aimed against Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov (though Sychev had both feet amputated, while Ivanov still seems to have his). So perhaps it would be worthwhile to investigate and find out what really happened? Maybe Ivanov himself should try to find out why his subordinates (the military surgeons from Moscow, for example) kept talking nonsense about Sychev allegedly having some pre-existing illness that affected the circulation in his feet. Or determine the identity of the “generals” who put pressure on conscript witnesses, leading them to change their stories several times in the course of the trial. And determine exactly why Sychev was beaten up in the first place: simply because Sivyakov (or someone else) felt like doing it, or because it was an attack aimed at Ivanov – who learned of the event belatedly, while in the mountains.

Full clarification of the circumstances would surely have an impact on Ivanov’s popularity rating, one way or the other. But that seems to be undesirable, since Ivanov is still in the top three (not counting Putin, of course). In a recent poll by the Levada Center, when people were asked how they would vote if Putin is not a candidate in the presidential election of 2008, 16% of those who definitely intend to vote said they would support Ivanov, while 22% chose First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev.

And between the two of them, like a ballot-paper slipping into the slot, is the popular favorite: Vladimir Zhirinovsky, with a hefty 20%. And if his supporters say they will vote, they’ll certainly do so.

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