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Duma Election - December 1999

. President Boris Yeltsin was elected in 1996, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin took office in August. A more centrist-leaning Duma was elected on December 19 in elections that were judged by international observers to be largely free and fair, although preelection manipulation of the media was a problem.

The gap between rich and poor widened enormously. What little liberty the Russian population gained during the 1990 was offset by an enormous drop in the economic standard of life for the majority of the population. When asked in 1999 whether they had gained or lost as a result of the changes since Yeltsin had come to power, 70 percent said they had lost to some degree, and only 6 percent said that they had gained to some degree.

In Russia "the party of power," those who hold high office, had some levers to create coalitions that fade immediately after the election, or fall apart as their leaders lose clout. Many Russians were living in worse squalor than they had under the Soviet Union. Horrific public violence was routine, and Westerners were not immune. The FSB (the KGB’s successor), which provided the requisite krisha, or roof — protection by way of extortion.

In August 1998, after a series of complicated dealings that once again benefited a few, and after the government had promised not to devalue the ruble, it did just that and froze bank accounts. The working capital of many entrepreneurs who had begun small businesses was wiped out. In effect, savings were again confiscated. More businesses shut down, and more jobs were lost. The public health care system gradually crumbled as doctors went un paid and there were few medical drugs available. Alone among industrialized countries, Russia experienced a sharp decline in life expectancy.

Former Prime Minister Chernomyrdin, for example, pressured governors to cobble together the "Our Home is Russia" party. The two major personalist parties of the 1999 electionw were a party cobbled together at the last hour by the Kremlin around Minister of Emergencies Shoygu [nine times world wrestling champion], labeled "The Bear" ("Medved" in Russian, in an obvious appeal to popularity), and Primakov’s "Fatherland All Russia" – which he formed with Moscow Mayor Luzhkov and some other governors. Born 1936, Yuriy Luzhkov was appointed Mayor of Moscow in 1992 by Yeltsin, he has since been popularly elected twice. Luzhkov is responsible for Moscow's impressive city services; he frequently championed nationalist themes. Luzhkov was among the top prospective presidential contenders in 2000.

The Constitution and the Law on Elections ban the participation in elections of organizations that profess anticonstitutional themes or activities. On 30 March 1999, President Yeltsin signed the law On the Basic Guarantees of Electoral Rights and the Right of Citizens to Participate in a Referendum (Voting Rights Act) and the federal law on public associations. These amendments clarify which political public associations may participate in elections; add restrictions on preferential media coverage, donations, and financial or material support from foreign entities for campaign-related activities; introduce measures to reduce the number of noncompetitive political parties and candidates on the ballot, such as financial deposits and other financial penalties, alongside signature-collection provisions; increase the level of information available to voters about candidates' financial and criminal history; introduce provisions allowing multicandidate constituencies; and add other provisions affecting federal-level and regional-level elections and referendums. Despite stricter rules regarding financing and reporting, the new law did not diminish the importance of money in the December Duma elections.

Another seriously flawed election was held in Dagestan on March 7. Although the law requires republic and local officials to take a leave of absence from their jobs while campaigning for a seat in the legislature, two-thirds of the over 400 candidates in Dagestan's legislative election violated that law. The legislature they sought to replace included 35 members who were convicted criminals and 5 who are under investigation. The campaign finance laws in Dagestan also were circumvented by many candidates who felt that the legal spending limits were too low (approximately $200, or 5,200 rubles).

Politically related violence at times resulted in death and injuries. For example, in April and May the republic of Karachayevo-Cherkesiya (in the northern Caucasus) held its first presidential elections in post-Soviet history. The campaign period and elections were filled with incidents of violence aimed at the major candidates, as well as a high number of election irregularities that strongly suggested electoral fraud. The ensuing victory of Vladimir Semenev, which was upheld by local authorities, renewed the protests that now threaten the republic's territorial integrity.

Elections in the Russian Parliament (the Duma) in mid-December 1999 resulted in a dilution of left-wing representation and a surprise victory for pro-government forces. The recently formed Unity Party (supported by the Yeltsin administration), the right wing Union of Right Forces and other pro-reformers all won more seats than anyone had expected. For the first time in the country's short history of democracy, Parliament was not dominated by Communist forces.

Many observers pointed to problems with biased media coverage of the election campaign. Paid political advertising in newspapers often is disguised as legitimate news stories. Campaigns pay under the table for stories favorable to their candidate, which allows the campaigns to bypass limits on campaign spending.

In the fall, media outlets linked to the Presidential Administration launched an effective "media war" against the Fatherland-All-Russia (OVR) party led by Moscow Mayor Luzhkov and former Prime Minister Primakov. The ORT and the RTR news programs were filled with negative stories about the OVR, which by late October resulted in lower popular support for the OVR and Luzhkov, according to opinion polls. The rival NTV network broadcast frequent counterattacks against the Presidential Administration. In late November, the Bashkortostan duma moved to block Sunday evening news analysis programs broadcast by the ORT and the RTR due to their strong bias in favor of the Presidential Administration. However, Bashkortostan president Murtaza Rakhimov met a few days later with Prime Minister Putin and agreed to resume broadcasting the news programs.

In early October, the CEC disqualified two of the top three candidates on the party list of Vladimir Zhirinovskiy's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) for failing to list all the vehicles and property they own. This action voided the entire LDPR list and made it ineligible to participate in the Duma elections. However, later that month Zhirinovskiy formed a new party bloc with two minor parties in order to qualify to compete in the elections, and the new party list did not include some of the most controversial LDPR candidates.

In elections that were judged by international observers largely to be free and fair, a more centrist-leaning Duma was elected on December 19. According to the Central Electoral Commission (CEC), the Communist Party won 24.3 percent of the federal party list votes, the Unity movement aligned with the Presidential Administration won 23.3 percent, Fatherland-All-Russia won 13.3 percent, the Union of Right Forces aligned with the Presidential Administration won 8.5 percent, Vladimir Zhirinovskiy's bloc won 5.8 percent, and the Yabloko party won 5.9 percent of the vote.

Many Russians refer to this period as one of collapse and catastrophe. In the decade of the 1990s, the high hopes and energies of a great many honest people who wanted to work to build a new Russia were simply wasted and gradually drained away.

The Russian Ministry of the Interior estimated that some 20% of the candidates in 1999 had criminal records and are running primarily to get parliamentary immunity. Some projections suggest that fully one tenth of the Duma could be composed of people with dubious backgrounds who are likely to be willing to sell their Duma votes to the highest bidder. All these factors — centrist stagnation, party atomization, bribable deputies — made it likely that the executive would maintain its dominance of the Duma, which underscored the high stakes of the Presidential election.




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