Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

A Lopsided Russian Election

March 17, 2004

In politics as in wealth, it often seems there's no such thing as enough. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin registers a favorable rating of 70% or above in opinion polls, yet he's gone out of his way to cripple any political opposition. That paid off in Sunday's election, when Putin received 71% of the vote, giving him a landslide win and a second four-year term. His closest rival received 14%.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe monitored the election and aptly concluded that, although it may not have featured Chicago-style stuffing or thefts of ballot boxes, it fell short of what's needed "for a healthy democratic election process." The reason: Authorities stifled political discourse and stiffed political parties.

Three years ago, President Bush said he looked into Putin's eyes and got "a sense of his soul." But the Bush administration's ardor has cooled as the reasons to criticize the Russian leader increase. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Sunday that the Russian election didn't signal the end of democracy there, but "they've just got to do a better job of it."

Putin has presided over the government's seizure of private television networks and their use as Kremlin propaganda tools; that action, in turn, forced one oligarch into exile. In October, Putin arrested for supposed corruption the oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose real infraction was considering a run for president against Putin.

In the wake of victory, Putin promised to safeguard the country's democratic achievements since the collapse of the Soviet Union. He promised to strengthen civil society and ensure the freedom of the mass media. Those are encouraging words, but Putin's actions in office do not inspire confidence that he will fulfill his promises.

Russians value their president's leadership for bringing stability after the erratic, sometimes alcohol-fueled presidency of Boris N. Yeltsin, who chose Putin to succeed him. Russians also applaud Putin's harsh campaign against Chechen rebels, some of whom have carried out terrorist bombings in Moscow. But the Chechen campaign also has included indiscriminate killing of civilians and brought deserved criticism from human rights groups.

Putin has presided over a revival of the Russian economy, thanks in part to global high prices for oil. More people have work than four years ago, and now they get their wages on time. But the Russian leader should take advantage of his enormous popularity to expand democracy, not erode it. Letting political parties flourish and enjoy access to print and broadcast media could help the 51-year-old to be remembered as being like the Czech Republic's Vaclav Havel and other reformers, rather than sclerotic authoritarians such as Leonid I. Brezhnev and Yuri V. Andropov.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|