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News Flash: Russia Remains Russia

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

"Don't you forget what's divine in the Russian soul, and that's resignation."

-- Joseph Conrad

There are some wonderful oxymorons in history -- like the Holy Roman Empire, which was neither holy nor Roman nor much of an empire. Our own times can offer more than a few such grandiose monickers, like the People's Republic of China, which is neither the people's nor a republic nor representative of all of China. Not so long as Taiwan stays free of Beijing's grasp, anyway.

In this country, we've had one economic stimulus after another that failed to stimulate the economy very much. And now Russia, which has always been a rich source of such terminological ironies, has come through again. This week it held "free elections" that -- surprise! -- weren't very free.

The real surprise was the extent to which Russia's parliamentary elections were indeed free -- or Vladimir Putin's party and juggernaut would have done much better. Instead it polled a little less than a majority -- 49.7 percent at last report. That means it could lose up to 75 of its 315 seats in the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament.

For the ruling party not to dictate the election results along with everything else in Russia represents change, if not very much. A command economy used to imply command election results, too. But you just can't count on anything these days.

Never fear, freedom remains as suspect as ever in autocratic Russia. The autocracies may change their personnel and parties but remain just as autocratic. This time Tsar Vlad's well-oiled machine gave ground to the Communists, the default option of Russian voters when they want to cast a protest vote, mainly against the economic slump that Comrade/Citizen/Boss Putin has presided over in recent years.

The result of this week's very Russian elections: The Communists increased their share of the vote from 12 percent four years ago to 20 percent. The essence of a Russian election remains a choice between different dictatorial tendencies.

The liberal parties, such as they are in Russia, ran a distant third, if that well. Something there is about democracy that seems to offend Russian voters, perhaps the plethora of choices. Like any other fauna of the plains and steppes, Russians lend themselves to being herded. And when one autocratic party falls out of favor, another rises in popular esteem.

Even Russians who promised their parents and grandparents, the generations who knew what Communist rule was like, that they would never cast a ballot for a Communist felt they had to do so now for their protest to count. They found their hand ticking off the box beside the Communist Party as if by some autonomous reflex. Anything but cast a vote for a party that believes in Russian heresies like free markets and free expression.

Apparently, the Russian for liberal is ineffectual. See also dithering, indecisive and unappealing. Even unpatriotic. Un-Russian, if you like. Because if a cause isn't holy and fervent, or a regime not despotic, and democracy is none of those, being only a system and not a promise of utopia, it can't compete with the attractions of tyranny, however cruel the reality turns out to be.

Anyone who's been to Russia can testify to the bleary-eyed nostalgia for Stalin that sets in after a few vodkas. ("He knew how to rule -- with a strong hand. Zdarovye! To your health, tovarisch . . . .") The rest of the speech may be forgotten by dawn's much too early light, but not the sentimental attachment to the tyrant. Any tyrant.

At this juncture, the country's economic stagflation seems to have produced its political equivalent, and Russia now drifts between two unpalatable regimes, that of the Reds and the former Reds. The more things change, the more they don't in Mother Russia.

. .

If these elections were exceptionally free for Russia (free being only a relative term east of the Dnieper), it wasn't for any shortage of efforts to rig them on behalf of the tenuously ruling party. The usual ballot boxes were found stuffed before the polls opened in Moscow and Rostov-on-Don. A group of Communist poll watchers found that a group of ringers had preceded them at a polling station in Krasnodar, and so the real Communists were denied entrance. Russia takes some getting used to, much like the thought that Communists should be demanding fairer elections.

Rigging the vote goes hand in iron hand with shutting down the press. Independent observers of Russia's elections found their websites sabotaged by hackers. Nosy reporters and such, including an AP photographer, were briefly arrested, the novelty being that they were detained only briefly. And the official results showed the Putinistas doing a lot better, naturally, than unofficial exit polls.

We are all shocked, shocked! But there's no reason Americans should be. It all sounds as familiar as Chicago during the early Daley dynasty. Or in some of the more picturesque precincts of my native Louisiana when the Longs ran that state and fiefdom.

But it is progress when Russia knows only American-style corruption instead of Stalinist/Leninist brutality. Unless, of course, you're some economic oligarch who won't take orders from the party. Then you lose not only your company but your freedom.

What next for Russia? The same as what has been. In a land where everything new is old, we'd bet on this tsar's holding on till the next one rises. But that doesn't mean tsardom will go away.

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