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Putin on freedom versus welfare

The start of the New Year finds Russia in bad shape, according to US democracy watchdog Freedom House, which claims that Russians now enjoy the same level of freedom as citizens of Angola, Egypt and Tajikistan. In fact, Freedom House has been scoring Russia "Not Free" for several years now. Yet even by its own questionable standards, things apparently went "from bad to worse" in 2007, largely because of abuses during the State Duma election campaign:
Hugh Barnes
17 January 2008

The start of the New Year finds Russia in bad shape, according to US democracy watchdog Freedom House,which claims that Russians now enjoy the same level of freedom ascitizens of Angola, Egypt and Tajikistan. In fact, Freedom House hasbeen scoring Russia "Not Free" for several years now. Yet even by itsown questionable standards, things apparently went "from bad to worse"in 2007, largely because of abuses during the State Duma election campaign:

"No event more vividly illustrates the problems faced by the non-Baltic countries of the former Soviet Union than Russia’s parliamentary elections. In certain superficial ways, the Russian vote resembled elections in established democracies. Several parties put forward candidates for parliamentary seats, held rallies, and made promises to the electorate, and the press eagerly covered the pageantry surrounding the campaign. But as numerous independent monitoring organizations testified, the elections were an illusory spectacle, as parties and candidates who challenged the policies of President Vladimir Putin were eliminated through bureaucratic manipulation. The press—largely controlled by the state or supporters of the president—devoted overwhelming coverage to Putin and his allies, and measures were implemented to keep the opposition impotent, fragmented, or tame."

As for theimpact on the forthcoming presidential election, the Central ElectoralCommission of Russia stopped taking nominations for candidatesyesterday, so it looks as though the only "opposition" challenge toPutin's anointed successor Dmitry Medvedev will come from former primeminister Mikhail Kasyanov. The other two candidates, namely CommunistParty leader Gennady Zyuganov and Liberal Democratic leader VladimirZhirinovsky, are just there to distract the voters.

Just as the final weeks of 2007 saw the emergence of the Putin-Medvedevaxis as the vehicle for a seamless transfer of power, so the new yearhas kicked off with Putin, who is now rarelyseen in public without Medvedev by his side, wrong-footing his old rival."Misha Two Percent", to use Kasyanov's Yeltsin-era nickname, showed upat the Election Commission offices on Wednesday, with dozens ofsupporters and the two million signatures he needs to register as acandidate. But he won't be in the field for very long, according to a story in today's Nezavisimaya Gazeta:

"Society is being prepared for seeing Mikhail Kasyanov denied registration as a candidate for president.Criminal charges under Article 142 of the Criminal Code were pressed against Rustam Abdullin, the head of Kasyanov's election centre in the Republic of Marii-El. Abdullin is suspected of forgery of signatures in Kasyanov's support. 'See what the authorities are doing? That's lawlessness!' Kasyanov exclaimed when he heard the news.

Experts and politicians suspect that the ex-premier will be denied registration as a candidate. A source from United Russia, for example, claims that there is no point in registering him. 'He was allowed to proceed so far because factions in the Kremlin were fighting each other at one point,' the source said. 'When Putin made up his mind and designated Medvedev, however, all previously considered options and variants went down the drain.'"

The start of the old Russian new year also saw Putin kicking off thepresidential election season with a speech to the Federation Council(Russia's upper house) that was a kind of sneak preview of the Putin-Medvedev manifesto.Welfare, not democracy, is apparently the big idea."We have set forourselves some very fundamental tasks - including an entry into theworld's top five economies by the year 2020," Putin said. "But beingone of the top five is not an end in itself. We know that the state'scapacity to deal with these social issues will depend on our economicgrowth. We are talking about the formation of a modern socialenvironment for the individual that actually enables him or her toimprove their health, education,housing, working conditions,competitiveness and earnings.In the final analysis, this is about the development of the Russianpeople, not just maintaining the status quo but the development of theRussian people."

Fine words, but whether you can develop a "modern social environment"on the basis of an economic surplus alone, without regard to thedemocratic deficit, is an interesting question, albeit one that won'tbe addressed in the course of the election campaign. Or at any time byPutin's host at the Federation Council, its speaker Sergei Mironov, whowaded into the dispute with the British Council by observing that manyforeign organisations (and perhaps he also had Freedom House in mind)were just a front for Russophobes and spies."They like very much to teach democracy, to teach us laws, but theydon't believe it's obligatory for them, and they often engage innon-diplomatic activities under the cover of diplomatic organisations."

Is Britain breaking up?

With Scotland voting on Thursday in an election that could lead to a second independence referendum and increased talk of a 'border poll' in Northern Ireland, could the United Kingdom be on the verge of breaking up? And why? Where does England fit in this story?

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