Russia's current leaders "have learned to combine modern technologies with old Soviet practices and police methods" in order to present their state as a democracy while ruling it by non-democratic means, according to Pilar Bonet, a correspondent with the Moscow bureau of El Pais and a former Title VIII-Supported Research Scholar at the Kennan Institute. Bonet, who spoke at a Kennan Institute Noon Discussion on 2 February 2004, described Russia's political structure as a pyramid with President Vladimir Putin at the top, and contrasted this to a democratic structure, which should be more horizontal and flexible.
Bonet used an example from the 2003 parliamentary race to demonstrate how Russia's leaders create a "virtual democracy." She wanted to attend a campaign event for Boris Gryzlov, the lead candidate from the pro-Putin United Russia party. Gryzlov had a very sophisticated Internet site that detailed his campaign trips throughout Russia. However, Bonet noted, "If you wanted to get in to any of those events, it was impossible. For three weeks I tried and I couldn't get in to any of his speeches." When she finally managed to attend one of Gryzlov's speeches in Bashkortostan, the candidate expressed his support for Bashkortostan's corrupt and autocratic president Murtaza Rakhimov because only Rakhimov could guarantee a majority vote for United Russia in the region. This endorsement of Rakhimov was absent from Gryzlov's web site.
United Russia gained a two-thirds majority in Russia's parliament (Duma) in the 2003 elections. Bonet argued that beyond supporting the Kremlin, United Russia has no program. "Its ideology is built upon the words ‘stability,' ‘success,' and ‘economic growth.' These words are mixed in a kind of cocktail without any content behind them," she said. But even without an ideology, the party has a great deal of magnetism. Bonet noted that several Duma deputies from the Communist Party, along with half of the very small number of delegates elected from liberal parties, defected to United Russia after the election.
In Bonet's view, United Russia has effectively taken over the Duma. She noted, "people are beginning to talk again of a one-party system." All Duma committees are chaired by United Russia deputies, and the new practice of "zero readings" moves the process of debating pending legislation into the committees and off of the Duma floor. Even freedom of speech within the Duma is limited, Bonet argued, noting that when Prime Minister Kasyanov presented his program to the Duma, each party was allocated a number of questions based on the size of their representation. She warned that these changes will have a negative impact on the quality and type of legislation passed.
Anti-democratic tendencies are visible outside of the Duma as well, according to Bonet. She argued that Russia's upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, has lost any semblence of representing the country's 89 regions. As an example, she cited Putin's appointment of two St. Petersburgers as representatives of the Far Eastern republic of Tuva. Bonet believes that the next presidential election is also unlikely to be free and fair, and that most of Putin's opponents are in the pay of either the Kremlin or one of the dissident oligarchs. She stated that Putin's most serious liberal opponent, Vladimir Ryzhkov, has chosen not to run in the election, at least in part out of fear of retribution. Russian political figures are often afraid to be seen as opponents of the Kremlin, she argued, as much because of the historical treatment of dissidents in Russia as because of Putin's actual attempts at repression.
The two liberal parties of the Yeltsin era—Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces—suffered tremendous losses in the 2003 Duma elections. Bonet argued that these parties are unlikely to play a role in future elections, and this has left Russia's liberals in a very difficult position. She explained that some individuals and organizations have either been swallowed up by United Russia or are otherwise willing to work with the current government, while others, such as Union of Right Forces leader Boris Nemtsov, have become stridently anti-Putin. Non-governmental organizations also face an uncertain future now that their traditional advocates are no longer represented in the Duma.
Bonet concluded that the anti-democratic tendencies in Russia today are in many ways reminiscent of the political situation in the Soviet Union. However, she said it is unclear whether Russia is moving down an irreversible path of increasing authoritarianism. She contended that there is significant potential for conflict, either within the United Russia party or between United Russia and the Kremlin, noting, "United Russia has within its ranks people who belong to sectors with which it is theoretically at odds." In addition, Bonet argued that the number of people getting involved in civil society and small businesses is rising, and these people may demand reform. "Society is increasingly sophisticated in spite of the fact that democracy is not in demand, and there are a lot of open questions," she said.