Cablegate: Russia's Liberals Scorn Medvedev's Proposed

Published: Fri 7 Nov 2008 02:51 PM
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1. (SBU) Summary: Political liberal opposition leaders have
rejected President Medvedev's proposed changes to political
party laws as attacks against democracy and evidence of
further consolidation of power in Russia. The head of the
only independent election monitoring organization painted a
bleak picture of the current state of opposition politics in
Russia, on which the changes proposed by Medvedev would not
improve. Post will report via septel on reactions from
across the political spectrum to Medvedev's proposals. End
2. (SBU) Opposition liberal politicians have reacted sharply
against changes to the political process Medvedev proposed
during his November 5 annual address to Russia's upper
legislative chamber, the Federation Council. Among the
changes that would directly affect opposition parties are
proposals to:
-- Extend the term of the president from four years to six
and the term of Duma members from four to five years. (Note:
It remains unclear if this would apply to the incumbent
president and Duma members. Differing opinions have been
presented in the media, and undoubtedly will be debated when
the changes, which have already been put into the form of
draft legislation, are discussed in the Duma within the next
two weeks. End Note.);
-- Allot one or two Duma seats for parties that receive
between 5-7 percent of the vote (Note: Based on the results
of the December 2007 Duma elections, no other parties would
have passed even the lower five percent barrier entitling
them to a single seat in the 450 member Duma. End Note);
-- Abolish the use of cash collateral and lower the voter
signature threshold for allowing parties to participate in
elections and reduce the number of signatures needed to
register candidates in both presidential and Duma elections
(Note: No parties used the cash collateral option in the
2007 Duma elections or the 2008 regional elections, but this
change likely targets Aleksandr Lebedev and other oligarchs
considering political forays. Currently 250,000 signatures
are required to register a candidate for the Duma and two
million for the presidential election. End Note.);
-- Institute term limits on political party leaders. (Note:
This appears aimed at LDPR's Vladimir Zhirinovskiy and KPRF's
Gennadiy Zyuganov, whose personal charisma have buoyed their
parties to the 7 percent Duma threshold. However,
Zhirinovskiy told media on November 6 that he would accept a
party leadership term limit since he is grooming his son to
assume control of LDPR. End note.)
-- Allow the majority party in regional legislatures to
nominate a candidate for governor and forward it to the
president for approval (Note: United Russia is the majority
in 83 of Russia's 85 regional parliaments. End Note);
3. (SBU) Leaders of liberal opposition parties quickly
rejected Medvedev's proposed reforms. At a November 6 press
conference, organizers of Russia's new Solidarity movement
blasted Medvedev's proposals as attacks against democracy and
open political competition. Yabloko party chairman Sergey
Mitrokhin similarly issued a statement November 5 that his
party "categorically objects" as unconstitutional Medvedev's
proposal to extend the president's term of office from four
to six years. Garry Kasparov's United Civil Front (OGF)
ridiculed the proposed changes as "nothing but a criminal
plot for usurpation of power in Russia, as well as an attempt
to distract public opinion from the emerging social and
economic crisis in Russia." Former PM and chairman of the
Russian Popular Democratic Union (RNDS) Mikhail Kasyanov
accused Medvedev of failing to admit that "all the
foundations of the constitutional order have been destroyed"
and that citizens have no ability to influence those in
power. He added that an extension of presidential or Duma
terms would thus be the same whether it changes them to one
year or 25-year terms. Vladimir Ryzhkov, chairman of the
unregistered Republican Party, predicted that Medvedev's
moves are intended to prepare Putin for a return to the
presidency in 2009. The proposed changes, he added, would
"further tighten control over the state machinery of civil
society." The reduced voter signature requirement for
parties, Ryzkhov warned, would be irrelevant when the
government can always decide arbitrarily to invalidate
signatures submitted by an opposition party.
4. (SBU) Other political commentators joined the chorus of
those questioning Medvedev's gambit. Andrey Rikhter of the
Institute on Media Law and Policy told us he believed
Medvedev planned to use these proposals to position Putin for
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a return to the Presidency, but said that most Russians would
greet the idea calmly, as the idea of a Putin restoration had
been under public discussion since his second term. The
public "was adapted to the idea" although "they had forgotten
about it in the past year or two." Lilia Shibanova of the
NGO Golos said that any rhetorical nods to democratic reform
from Medvedev were merely "cosmetic." She expressed
dissatisfaction with the proposal on party registration, but
said that it was "a good start for dialogue." Nonetheless,
she saw very few "real choices" among liberal opposition
leaders, and painted a bleak picture of the current political
5. (SBU) Both Rikhter and Shibanova identified one bright
spot in Medvedev's Federation Council speech: Medvedev's
attack on powerful bureaucrats whom he accused of "destroying
business" in the country. According to Rikhter, Medvedev
intends to take on entrenched bureaucratic power structures
because of his frustration at their frequent refusal to
implement federal GOR policy. Rikhter said that local
bureaucrats rule the country on a de facto basis, something
unacceptable both to Medvedev and to civil society
organizations. Rikhter added that Medvedev's statements in
favor of media freedom may go beyond mere lip service, as
Medvedev specifically encouraged members of the media to
criticize these same bureaucrats. The centrist daily
Nezavisimaya Gazeta on November 7 carried an article about a
proposal to codify the amount of time journalists must wait
to obtain information from civil servants; Rikhter believes
that this may prove to be Medvedev's first blow against his
bureaucratic opponents, as it will require them to provide
information to the media on demand. Shibanova also told us
that this portion of Medvedev's speech gave her "hope," and
said that under the current system she believed local
authorities have too much power.
6. (SBU) Commentary on Medvedev's proposals from across the
political spectrum continues. Post will report via septel on
other perspectives on the speech and implications of the
proposals it contained.
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