Putin’s Parliamentary Circus

Naming a louche pop singer to the Duma is just the latest in a string of bizarre appointments for Russia’s increasingly brazen ringmaster.

If you're a Russian government official leading a press conference, you know it's a bad sign when your otherwise loyally self-censoring press corps is in such disbelief at your announcement that reporters keep asking if it's true. The nightmare came true on Wednesday for the election chair of the ruling United Russia party, who had to explain -- and explain again -- that yes, pop singer Nikolai Rastorguev was going to be a United Russia deputy in the Russian parliament.  

Rastorguev is the close-cropped and slightly bloated frontman of Russian pop group Lyubé, which became popular in perestroika days for its gruff, hoodlum-with-a-heart-of-gold quality (the band members came from the working-class Moscow suburb of Lyubertsy, thus the name), its clever lyrics, and its nonchalance toward authority. For nearly 21 years, the band has performed in army tunics and sung jokey songs like, "Stop Fooling Around, America," a half-serious call for the United States to give back Alaska, the video for which is a random soup of Soviet kitsch with Photoshop graphics. (Did Sarah Palin see that one coming from her window?) 

Now riddled with liver and kidney problems, Rastorguev has been drifting into the Kremlin's lucrative embrace for years. In 2002, then-president Vladimir Putin mentioned that Rastorguev was his favorite performer and invited the band for an earnest political discussion at his dacha. Then, in 2006, Rastorguev joined Putin's United Russia party, proclaiming, perceptively, that it was the "the only serious political force in the country." The following year, he joined the United Russia ticket for the parliamentary elections in the southern Stavropol region, mostly as a performer at party rallies. Then, a few weeks ago, a Duma seat opened up and Rastorguev, who in 2008 gave Putin a vial of Lyubé cologne, was asked to step in -- partly, observers say, as a "thank you" for all those rally concerts. 

But the craziest part of all is that it has ceased to feel unusual. When Rastorguev takes his seat in a few weeks, left vacant by a parliamentarian sent east to Yekaterinburg, he will join a long list of celebrities who have served for United Russia in the parliament during the Putin era. First, there was the raspy strummer Alexander Rozenbaum, who served briefly and with little distinction, followed by the more active, Barry Manilow-esque Iosif Kobzon. The two singers are gone, but over the last three years Putin has replaced them with a bevy of beauties -- a ballerina, a boxer, two gymnasts, and a speed skater -- in a move that's oddly reminiscent of his buddy Silvio Berlusconi's tactic of naming famous busty women, or outright porn stars, to head up Italian ministries. (Notably, the speed skater is now a vice speaker, and one of the gymnasts is Alina Kabaeva, the rhythmic gymnast rumored to be Putin's mistress who recently gave birth to a son she named Dmitry, a name he shares with the current Russian president.)

Now, with Rastorguev's ascendance, the existence of celebrities in the Duma seems to be creating an insane perpetual-motion machine: Responding to stunned journalists at the Wednesday press conference, the United Russia election chair said, "What sensation? Is it so rare for various athletes and artists to become deputies?" Responding in turn to such circular logic, one political scientist joked that the members of Deep Purple -- another Putin favorite -- might be Russia's next parliamentarians.

It is crazy, yes, but it is also brazen. Padding his parliament with inexperienced celebrities -- celebumentarians? -- is perhaps Putin's most blatant admission that the Duma is little more than a rubber stamp, a gesture at the democracy Russia says it has.  

"Don't you understand?" says opposition politician Boris Nemtsov. "United Russia is not a political party. These people are just the hired help. You know, at the king's court, there were jokers and singers and clowns, and the king was their master. Their job is just to raise their hands on command and then put them down again."

In talking about Rastorguev's bizarre appointment, some members of United Russia seemed grudgingly willing to defend the increasingly outlandish party line: "A singer can do government and civil service," United Russia deputy Boris Resnik says. "It doesn't strike me as at all odd."  

Others are trying to play a more subtle card. Gleb Pavlovsky, a top Kremlin advisor, was quite honest about the fact that Rastorguev was less than experienced, though, he added, it is "unlikely that they'll demand any extraordinary activity of him. He will be a cultural voice." 

Pavlovsky also conceded that, "of course, they" -- athletes and artists -- "give a somewhat non political character to the party, but I don't think it's a big problem."  

And, taking the by-now-familiar Kremlin line of invoking Russian exceptionalism as a salve for all wrongs, Pavlovsky maintained that this was simply a phase. "It is not something to be proud of in our political life," he said. "It is our inheritance from the late Soviet period when film directors and academics were political figures. I would prefer more lawyers, but it's a slow process."

Moreover, according to Pavlovsky, naming celebrities to the state Duma was "a correct tactic in forming the United Russia party as the party of the majority, a catchall party. It's quite normal ... there are athletes and artists in the parliament of every country in Europe." Pavlovsky declined to list any examples, but he suggested that including popular figures in party lists was a way to fight chronic public skepticism. "It's totally normal," he says. "People have felt a lot of distrust toward the government since Soviet times, so to attract them, it's important to have leaders of public opinion in the party." 

It's a strategy that, paradoxically, seems to be working. On the one hand, according to a recent poll by the Levada polling center, Russians have not really had the wool pulled over their eyes: Only 9 percent of Russians believe that their current form of government can be called "a democracy." (Two years ago, it was 15 percent.) "People see that state bureaucrats are getting more and more power and that the people get less and less; they see the highly personalized rule, the rigged elections," says Levada sociologist Oleg Savelev. Russians, in other words, are not stupid.  

United Russia, on the other hand, is smarter. Levada polling -- widely seen as the country's most reliable -- shows that Russians have largely bought into five years of rhetoric of "sovereign democracy," the theory propagated by the Kremlin, and seen as an excuse for creeping authoritarianism, that the Western model of democracy would be inappropriate for Russia. Nearly half of respondents say that Russia needs a form of democracy that is "completely unique, corresponding to the national traditions and specifics of Russia."  

And, strangely, in the few years since Putin started granting election-list slots and Duma seats as favors to his favorite celebrities, Pavlovsky's cynical tactics seem to be paying off. (And let's be clear here: In a country where opposition figures are routinely plucked off ballots on absurd technicalities, there can be no question that someone has to be allowed to run.) Russian opinion of the Duma -- inefficient and obstreperous in Boris Yeltsin's days; a rubber stamp now -- has always been low. But, since 2007, it has received a significant boost (relatively), with 13 percent approving of the Duma, up from 9 percent.

Which is also nearly the same spread as in the democracy poll.

Pavlovsky's "leaders of public opinion" appear to be actually overcoming the Russian skepticism toward government, never mind that the government itself is now run, almost literally, by circus performers.  

To fix such a brain-scrambling non sequitur, one can only turn to someone like Victor Shenderovich, a keen political satirist whose political comedy puppet show Kukly was yanked off the air in 2002 for needling Putin a bit too hard. 

"You know, this is a problem for a professional satirist, when events are funnier than any commentary you can provide," he says. "Any joke would be gratuitous because the events are already a joke." 



Rumble in the Junta

This year's elections in Myanmar won't be free and fair -- but they will be more significant than you think.

Walking through the streets of Yangon this January, I saw the futility of U.S. sanctions on every corner. Commerce thrives on steamy streets and markets, and billboards advertising Japanese, South Korean, and European brands are everywhere. Meanwhile, junta leaders targeted by sanctions that prevent their families' travel have contented themselves with retirement in splendid homes, while their grandchildren, denied visas to visit the United States, simply go to college in Europe and Australia. Sanctions have only served to isolate the United States. This is especially unfortunate at a time when the United States should be carefully watching, and even influencing, what might be the most important political year in Myanmar's recent history.

The date is not set, but the tiny handful of generals who have a monopoly on political power have declared elections will take place in 2010, and no one doubts they will happen before the year's end. Most Burmese citizens are nonplussed, and no one can blame them for assuming that the military junta that runs the country from the isolated capital of Naypyidaw has rigged the process.

But the truth is that the elections will bring change: perhaps not a sudden end to the military junta, but important and underappreciated change nonetheless. And the United States should be fully engaged.

This year's elections will be hotly contested by opposition politicians eager to gain a parliamentary seat. Although far from being a free and fair process, they might represent the start of a long and possibly tortuous road toward a relatively more democratic system. A new government is certain to emerge in Myanmar once the voting is over, one that is expected to include directly elected politicians representing a broader cross section of society than ever before. Rather than dismissing these elections out of hand and calling them a sham, the United States should carefully consider its options and assess this potentially historic opportunity to shape Myanmar's future.

The reason elections are expected soon is the ill health of the detested general known as "Number One," Than Shwe. A leader of the 1988 coup, Than Shwe became the chairman of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) in 1992 (in 1997, the SLORC changed its name to the State Peace and Development Council) and has maintained a firm grip on power to this day. He and his family have amassed a fortune, and at nearly age 77 his health is failing and he is ready to retire. Like many dictators before him, however, he realizes that retiring in safety can be more complicated than maintaining an iron grip on power. As the saying goes, "Riding a tiger is easy; getting off is more difficult."

To ensure that he and his family do not face trial or a firing squad once he relinquishes power, Than Shwe has crafted an elaborate retirement plan that replaces his junta with a new government, made up of military personnel and civilians, that will not be powerful enough to exact retribution from him, his family, or his cronies. The only outcome that preserves his wealth and freedom is a relatively weak, inclusive civil-military government that self-balances and checks the power of any one faction or branch. Establishing a durable civil-military government requires elections that confer enough legitimacy to sustain it and bolster the authority of civilians vis-à-vis the more powerful military. Learning from the experiences of many other military dictators, Than Shwe fears an authoritarian successor might bend to populist sentiment and obliterate him.

This plan was expedited following the 1990 elections, in which Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) won in a landslide victory, prompting the army to ignore the elections' results and throw her in jail. Than Shwe has since then clawed his way back to the top, eliminating rivals and successors alike, all the while plotting to enact a "road map" to democracy that has been broadly dismissed by all but his closest followers.

At the center of Than Shwe's plan is the 2008 Constitution. Superficially, Myanmar's Constitution is broadly based on the U.S. Constitution, with three branches of government forming a system of checks and balances. But the Constitution is flawed, just as the parliamentary elections and selection of the next head of state will be. The military is guaranteed 25 percent of seats in the legislature, and the president will be selected from three candidates picked by the government, with the two other candidates becoming vice presidents.

Although this might sound bleak, the optimist would recognize that 75 percent of the parliamentary seats will be chosen by popular vote, and it is quite likely that many of those seats will be won by opposition candidates. The government is already working hard to recruit candidates who are well regarded in their communities and not antagonistic to the military -- such as teachers and successful farmers -- ensuring that parliament includes independent MPs who are respected by the population. With the military guaranteed 25 percent of seats and the rest shared between pro-government, independent, and opposition parliamentarians, it is unlikely that an outright majority will control the legislature, necessitating the need for compromise and coalition-forming.

However, there are two things that might stand in the way of this grand plan -- the next generation of military leaders and "the lady." There is no guarantee that the next generation of officers will be willing to share power with civilians, especially elected ones. They might not respect the limits on power as they have been set out on flimsy paper.

Aung San Suu Kyi presents the other potential problem for the generals. Should she be released from detention and allowed to campaign freely for her NLD candidates, they would easily win a majority of seats, just as they did in the 1990 elections when they won 392 of 485 seats, even with Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. An overwhelming NLD victory in 2010 will be almost certainly unacceptable to the retiring generals who do not want to find themselves at the mercy of the long-persecuted and exiled NLD. Another coup would likely result, ending any hope for representational government in Myanmar emerging for decades to come.

To prevent this, the generals will likely seek to prevent Aung San Suu Kyi from campaigning, keeping her under house arrest until the elections are concluded. Although the election law and polling dates have not been announced yet, some analysts are guessing that the election law will be issued in early spring and the elections possibly held on the numerologically auspicious October 10 (10-10-10). However, Aung San Suu Kyi has indicated that she is pragmatic, expressing to the government that she is willing to compromise and discuss anything, though up to now she has not committed the NLD to either participate or boycott the process. There is a pervasive air of uncertainty. But should an accommodation be reached between the generals and Aung San Suu Kyi and elections held, it potentially represents the first step in Myanmar's evolution from a military dictatorship to a form of representational government familiar to many of Myanmar's Asian neighbors.

Consider one historical precedent. South Korea's presidential and National Assembly elections in the 1970s and particularly in 1987 and 1988, though hardly considered free and fair, gave opposition parties and candidates, including Nobel laureate and future president Kim Dae-jung (who ran for president three times before being elected in 1997), a legitimate platform from which to develop their voices, attract supporters, learn the political process, and oppose the ruling party. Few might have predicted it at the time of South Korea's first elections, but today the country has an entrenched and mature democratic process, with conservative and liberal parties exchanging power peacefully.

Despite the stacked deck, some political candidates in Myanmar are optimistic about the prospects for this year's elections. One opposition leader who has spent years in jail said the government had encouraged him to field candidates to contest the elections. Admitting that they were a small step, he said, "One thing I like about the Constitution is that we can get elected to parliament; I can speak freely in parliament and not on the side of the road on a soapbox. Why don't we as a people take this opportunity to help [Than Shwe] make a graceful exit and gain democracy in the process?"

In addition to enthusiastic political candidates, civil society is growing and provides a tenuous base to support democracy. Grassroots organizations pepper the countryside, and Yangon-based NGOs look increasingly like their counterparts in Bangkok and Seoul implementing social and environmental programs supported by international funding, particularly in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis. The official media is still a ham-fisted propaganda arm of the government, but small publications are emerging and the Internet is an increasingly important source of balanced information. The Voice of America's Burmese service's three hours of daily shortwave broadcasts will be particularly important during election campaigning as one of the few nongovernment-controlled sources of information available nationwide.

Of course, the government still has many tools at its disposal to fight the opposition, such as the election law and outright intimidation. For instance, officials and their families will be told who to vote for, while watchful cadres will likely maintain a highly visible presence at polling stations. The election law will also possibly exclude particular candidates -- such as former political prisoners or members of ethnic groups that remain in armed opposition to the government -- in addition to giving very little time for opposition candidates to raise support, publish materials, and campaign. In addition to ballot box-stuffing, the government is also reportedly planning elaborate dirty tricks, such as creating new political parties that sound like the opposition parties in an effort to confuse voters.

Nonetheless, opposition leaders are optimistic that this year's elections will give them a foot in the political door, a few seats in parliament, and a platform from which to gain valuable experience and contest the next elections in 2015. That year, the president will likely start a second term, setting the stage for a really experienced cadre of politicians to campaign their hearts out in 2020.

As part of its new engagement formula, the United States should consider supporting a peaceful political process in Myanmar that provides an opportunity for the opposition to participate in government. Continued support for human rights is essential, as is relentless pressure on the Burmese government to release political prisoners and reach a peaceful détente with the opposition and ethnic groups. Although it might seem like a choice of pragmatism over human rights policy, engaging in the Burmese elections is actually a decision that benefits both.