In Russia, the backward march to czarism continues.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

SUNDAY'S parliamentary elections yielded the predictable result -- an easy victory for the Kremlin-backed party United Russia. They also made a mockery of President Vladimir Putin's insistence that Russia belongs in the club of Western democratic nations.

Even after years of increasingly centralized authority, the vote Sunday was a throwback. Backed by the administrative apparatus of the state, United Russia, Mr. Putin's personal political vehicle, rode roughshod over its divided and disorganized rivals. In true Soviet style, opposition parties were demonized as the lackeys of Western "enemies." The campaign, conducted with brass-knuckled disregard for any who would stand in Mr. Putin's way, was followed by election day reports of fraud, abuse, multiple ballots and other irregularities. In the Russian region of Chechnya, the president's party collected 99.36 percent of the vote with turnout of 99.5 percent, an outcome that Ramzan Kadyrov, the feared local strongman who does Mr. Putin's bidding, characterized as "a normal result." If there was any surprise, it is that United Russia managed only 64.1 percent of the national vote.

Mr. Putin's allies and apologists have often conceded flaws in Russian politics, excusing them as byproducts of a "managed democracy" supposedly in transition to some more mature system. In fact, as Sunday's vote made clear, the Kremlin's machinations serve only as a smokescreen for its retreat from democratic norms and toward a neo-Soviet autocracy tightly controlled by Mr. Putin. By most accounts, the Russian president enjoys broad support, largely for having overseen an oil-fueled economic boom that has raised living standards and reinforced the country's sense of revival. But his unwillingness to permit a campaign unfiltered and undistorted by the Kremlin revealed disdain for real democracy -- and insecurity about his own popularity.

The election raises two pressing questions. One is the future political role to be played by Mr. Putin, who has asserted that his party's victory would provide the "moral" basis for him to retain power in some guise after his second -- and, under the constitution, final -- term as president expires next year. With the Kremlin in control of two-thirds of the seats in the Duma, the lower house of parliament, it will be able to amend the constitution to conform to Mr. Putin's ambitions -- a state of affairs that deepens concerns about Moscow's drift from democracy and pluralism.

The other question is about Russia's continued role in Western institutions. Having systematically attacked the West, Mr. Putin for the first time blocked Europe from observing a Russian vote and then capped off his campaign by formalizing Moscow's withdrawal from the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, which limits Russian and NATO deployments on the continent. Now, on the heels of a tainted election, Western leaders must reassess Russia's role in the G-8 and other democratic clubs whose ideals and principles Moscow holds in such evident contempt.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company