Following Kremlin criticism of last month's regional election results and widespread allegations of fraud from several pro-Kremlin and opposition parties, all eyes are on President Dmitry Medvedev's upcoming state-of-the-nation address for signs of bold democratic reforms.
But parties across the political spectrum are split on whether there will be anything more than mere rhetoric to the proposals.
"The president has said he's ready to make amendments to Russia's electoral law," said Maxim Rostmistrov, a top official at the nationalist LDPR party, whose leaders met with Medvedev on October 24 to complain about election fraud. Along with Just Russia, LDPR is widely considered to be merely a nominal opposition party. But the party joined the Communists and walked out of parliament on October 14 in a display of disappointment in the election results.
"It is the mistake of our legislation," said Rostmistrov, when asked why the alleged election violations were so massive this year. "We passed a law that had governors voted into power by regional parliaments," he said, speaking of the 2004 bill that cancelled elections for regional heads, replacing them by presidential appointment. "Of course the governor would try to save his post any way possible - his life depends on it. So he tries to bring in as many loyal people as possible."
Few were surprised when United Russia won in regional elections in 75 regions across Russia. But parliamentarians from two pro-Kremlin parties, LDPR and Just Russia, said the rigging was blatant even by Russian standards. In Moscow, where support for the liberal opposition is much higher than in the regions, all four parties were expected to pass the 7 per cent threshold. Instead, just three opposition candidates made it into the 35-seat City Duma.
On state television, Medvedev said the elections had been satisfactory, while Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said that those who were unhappy should pursue the issue through the courts. "If we are speaking about whether the elections were fair or not, then if anyone has doubts, they should go to court and provide proof," Putin said. "Those who lose are always unsatisfied."
Oleg Shein, a former Duma deputy from the Just Russia party who ran for mayor in his native Astrakhan, called the voter fraud unprecedented.
"Considering that the scale of the violations was much bigger than last year, this definitely poses a serious risk not just for society but for the Kremlin," he said.
In Astrakhan, on the Caspian coast, observers were "physically removed" from the voting stations and journalists and oppositionists were violently attacked. Up to 2,000 people took to the streets there to protest election results. But according to Shein, it's the local officials who are rigging the ballot.
"Local clans are forming that answer neither to citizens, nor to the federal government. If this continues, within a year it won't be the Kremlin giving orders to local leaders. Local leaders will be [making up] their own results in the national elections as well. If Moscow does not take action, then the federal centre may start losing control, especially in light of the [economic] crisis."
Shein was among top party officials who met with Medvedev on Oct. 24. Asked whether Shein expected Medvedev to bring this up during his state-of-the-nation address, Shein said statements were not enough, and action was needed.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky's LDPR, meanwhile, demanded that the Kremlin sack Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, Tula governor Vladimir Dudka and the president of the central Russian republic of Mari El, Leonid Markelov.
Comments by LDPR's Duma faction chief, Igor Lebedev, that Medvedev hadn't jumped to Luzhkov's defence were widely interpreted to mean that the Moscow chief's days as mayor were numbered, but party officials downplayed any significance the election results had for Luzhkov's future.
"The format doesn't mean Medvedev will answer or deny anything," a spokeswoman for Lebedev said. "The whole purpose of these meetings is to hear out the party. In the past, when LDPR complained about a governor, Medvedev was silent, and then three weeks later the governor was asked to resign."
"If anybody should be taken down, it should be Medvedev and Putin," said Sergei Mitrokhin, the leader of the liberal Yabloko party, whose own ballot was apparently mislaid in the City Duma election. "They created a situation where elections have to be falsified to make sure United Russia wins." As for Luzhkov, "to secure himself against his possible sacking he tried really hard to get good votes for United Russia. He plays the role of a small cog [in a machine]," and his job is to secure support for the party of power.
A bigger question was whether Medvedev would actually change electoral laws. During his first state-of-the-nation address last November, Medvedev proposed granting parliamentary seats to some parties that failed to pass the 7 per cent threshold, abolishing election deposits, and gradually reducing the number of voter signatures required for parliamentary polls. But the only real change was a bill rushed through that extended the presidential and parliamentary terms from four years to six.
In his recent article, "Russia, Forward!" Medvedev called for a more powerful, multi-party legislative body.
But if Medvedev does anything, "it will be just words," said Vladimir Pribylovsky, president of the Panorama think tank.
Pribylovsky said that the decision of LDPR and Just Russia to join the Communist walk-out was a "ritual gesture" that was probably approved in advance by Vladislav Surkov, the deputy chief of the presidential administration who is widely viewed as the Kremlin's chief political ideologue. "The elections are a show put on for the West," he said.
The oppositionist parties decided to protest what they saw as rigged elections "because they owed it to their constituencies," Pribylovsky said.