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Putin's Party Maintains Tight Grip Over Russian Duma Elections


Russia is getting ready for parliamentary elections on Sunday. There's no mystery about who's going to win. Vladimir Putin's United Russia Party has stifled pretty much all meaningful opposition. The more interesting question might be, why hold elections at all in a country where the ruling party has such tight control? NPR's Moscow correspondent Corey Flintoff is here with us in the studio to talk about what this Russian election is really about. Hi, Corey.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Nice to be here, Ari.

SHAPIRO: First of all, how did President Putin get to this point where his party is basically invincible in Russia?

FLINTOFF: Well, you know, Putin's been in power now for 17 years, and during that time he's gotten control - complete control of the news media. So Russians get a steady diet of pro-government propaganda essentially. He's also suppressed the opposition, you know, sometimes by arresting opposition leaders.

One of the most broadly popular opposition leaders, Boris Nemtsov, was actually assassinated last year within sight of the Kremlin walls. So the opposition right now is pretty weak and pretty fragmented.

SHAPIRO: But there are other parties running in this election on Sunday. We hear about communists and nationalists. They at least describe themselves as opposition.

FLINTOFF: They do, but ordinary Russians call them the systemic opposition. That - you know, that means they're part of the system basically. And even though they might criticize the government for being too capitalistic, for instance, or weak on defense, they can be reliably counted on to vote with the Kremlin on any important subject.

SHAPIRO: OK, so what is the significance of these elections, and why hold them at all if everybody knows what's going to happen?

FLINTOFF: You know, I asked some Russian analysts about that, and they said there is an important symbolic purpose to these elections. It's a - kind of a ritual that gives people the impression at least that they have some voice in the process even if it's only a choice between, you know, a - the government and a systemic opposition party.

But there's also a new wrinkle in this election, and that is, the last time around, everybody voted for party lists, and the parties then would appoint their representatives. This time some of those candidates will be elected directly by the government, so they're going to have to actually go before the people and sell themselves to the constituents.

SHAPIRO: But they're still going to have to be loyal to the Kremlin ultimately, right?

FLINTOFF: Well, they will. But here's a political analyst I talked to, Boris Makarenko, who told me that this does represent an important change in the quality of the candidates.

BORIS MAKARENKO: We will see candidates who at this time appear as loyal to the regime as the incumbent MPs but who are more vocal, who are more open, who are better communicators, who have won a reputation as good doctors, good educationalists, union leaders and many other professions. So the composition of the, quote, unquote, "party of power" in the next Duma will be different.

FLINTOFF: The Duma he's talking about is of course the lower house of the Russian parliament. What he's saying is essentially that these new members will be more resistant to voting for unpopular legislation, you know, more likely to negotiate because they'll have to be more accountable to their constituents.

SHAPIRO: And do you think that will translate to any real change in the way that power comes down from the Kremlin?

FLINTOFF: Well, it may be only a cosmetic change, you know? Boris Makarenko also told me that, you know, polling shows that Russian people do like the idea of voting directly for their representatives. But he quoted one guy who said, I like voting for a specific person because then I'll know whose face I want to spit in if the government fails to deliver.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Corey Flintoff on Sunday's parliamentary elections in Russia. Thanks, Corey.

FLINTOFF: Nice to be here, Ari. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.