Jim Nichol Specialist in Russian and Eurasian Affairs
Challenges to Russia’s democratic development have long been of concern to Congress as it has considered the course of U.S.-Russia cooperation on matters of mutual strategic interest and as it has monitored problematic human rights cases. Most recently, elections for the 450-member Russian State Duma (lower legislative chamber) on December 4, 2011, have heightened concerns among some Members of Congress about whether Russia can be an enduring and reliable partner in international relations if it does not uphold human rights and the rule of law.
In the run-up to the December 2011 State Duma election, seven political parties were approved to run, although during the period since the last election in late 2007, several other parties had attempted to register for the election but were blocked from doing so. These actions had elicited criticism from the U.S. State Department that diverse political interests were not being fully represented. As election day neared, Russian officials became increasingly concerned that the ruling United Russia Party, which had held most of the seats in the outgoing Duma, was swiftly losing popular support. According to some observers, Russian authorities, in an attempt to prevent losses at the polls, not only used their positions to campaign for the party but also planned ballotbox stuffing and other illicit means to retain a majority of seats for the ruling party. In addition, Russian President Dmitriy Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had increasingly criticized election monitoring carried out by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and insisted on limiting the number of OSCE observers. Russian authorities also moved against one prominent Russian non-governmental monitoring group, Golos, to discourage its coverage of the election. According to the OSCE’s preliminary report on the outcome of the election, the close ties between the Russian government and the ruling party, the refusal to register political parties, the pro-government bias of the electoral commissions and most media, and ballot-box stuffing and other government manipulation of the vote marked the election as not free and fair.
The day after the election, about 5,000 protesters rallied in central Moscow against what they viewed as a flawed election. When many of them began an unsanctioned march toward the Central Electoral Commission, police forcibly dispersed them, reportedly detaining hundreds. The Kremlin quickly mobilized pro-government youth groups to hold large demonstrations termed “clean victory” to press home their claim that minority groups would not be permitted to impose their will on the “majority” of the electorate. On December 7, 2011, several U.S. Senators issued a statement condemning Russian police crackdowns on those demonstrating against the “blatant fraud” of the Duma election. On December 10, large demonstrations under the slogan “For Honest Elections!” were held in Moscow and dozens of other cities. At the rally, Boris Nemtsov, the co-head of the unregistered opposition Party of People's Freedom, reflected popular sentiment with a list of demands that included the ouster of the head of the Central Electoral Commission, the release of those detained for protesting and other “political prisoners,” the registration of previously banned parties, and new Duma elections.
Many observers have raised concerns that public unrest may continue, although security forces appear firmly in control and unlikely to permit the unrest to threaten the government. The Obama Administration has been critical of the apparently flawed Duma election, but has called for continued engagement with Russia on issues of mutual strategic concern. Some in Congress also have criticized the Duma election and the subsequent crackdown on protesters, and Congress may consider the implications of lagging democratization and human rights abuses as it considers possible future foreign assistance and trade legislation and other aspects of U.S.-Russia relations.
Date of Report: December 13, 2011
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