Last week the government of Russia banned a center-right democratic opposition party from participating in elections. At the same time, the Kremlin propped up a small party led by a friendly oligarch. Despite his democratic rhetoric, President Dmitry Medvedev did nothing to uphold minimal democratic norms.
As Heritage’s Ariel Cohen noted recently, the Obama Administration “bet on the wrong horse” when it engaged Medvedev as the lead contact for its “reset” of relations with Russia. Unfortunately, he did not deliver on democracy or other issues important to the U.S.
A bipartisan group of U.S. experts announced last week that Russia “failed an important test…to hold free and fair elections” when the Ministry of Justice refused to accept the registration of the Party of People’s Freedom (PARNAS), an opposition party led by well-known democratic politicians including the former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, and the former Duma Vice Chairman Vladimir Ryzhkov.
The decision to deny registration is dubious. Russian authorities said that the party ranks contained some “dead souls” (some names necessary for registration could not be confirmed), yet these were 70 out of more than 46,000 people who signed the registration petition.
Furthermore, authorities claimed that the party did not allow for a “rotation of leadership” required under election law, which is patently false.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released a statement saying “it is hard to understand how this decision…is consistent with Russia’s international commitments and recent statements by Russia’s own leaders.” The right question is, of course, why is the Secretary surprised after this Administration gave Russia carte blanche to crack down on the remnants of democracy, and what is the Secretary planning to do about it?
Meanwhile, over the weekend, the Kremlin took steps to split the liberal vote. “Right Cause,” a Kremlin-supported “opposition” launched in 2008, elected an oligarch as their new party leader: Mikhail Prokhorov, Russia’s third-richest person (worth $18 billion according to Forbes and owner of the NBA’s New Jersey Nets).
As much as Prokhorov and his party want to be known as pro-business and reformist, he already ruled out identifying “Right Cause” as opposition—which means it supports the status quo. In fact, Arkady Dvorkovich, President Medvedev’s economic advisor, tweeted recently that Prokhorov’s views were “close to [his].” And what’s to stop Medvedev from joining ranks with a friendly, pro-business party like Right Cause if he doesn’t become president again? Possibly, only its miniscule support in the Russian body politic.
These recent events, including the creation of the “Popular Front” to support Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency and to boost the ruling United Russia party, demonstrate that everything is “business as usual”: Real opposition gets shafted while the rulers are propping up friendly political forces.
PARNAS is one of nine opposition parties that the Central Electoral Commission and the Justice Ministry have denied access to Russia’s electorate in the last four years. Opposition politicians do not have access to national TV channels. And the European Court of Human Rights has cited Russia for its handling of opposition movements, including the forced dissolution of an opposition party in 2007. While President Medvedev and the tame Right Cause are calling for greater democracy, the government denies millions of Russians the right to vote. The Obama Administration should take note as its “reset” policy demonstrates its futility once again.
Robert Nicholson is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm