Putin, his rivals and democracy in Russia

The best hope for reform voters is that the shock will force the parties to revise their whole approach
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Russian babushki used to limit their public utterances to scolding the young for running down Metro escalators or not wearing a hat in winter. Now, like everyone else in Russia, they have a view on the wider world. Yesterday one of these formidable ladies offered me, unsolicited, her thinking about the Moscow bombs.

"Terrible," she said, as we watched the emergency services clearing up the debris outside the National Hotel. "Terrible. But these things will keep on happening until they nationalise everything again."

Whatever the motives of those who caused yesterday's explosions, it is a fairly safe bet that re-nationalisation and the return of Communism were not among them. Like the reconstitution of the Soviet Union, however, the return of Russia's natural resources, land and property to public ownership still has a following, and not just among older people. More than 10 years after the collapse of Soviet communismand the system of central planning that went with it, there is a solid constituency that would like them both back.

To conclude from the results of Sunday's parliamentary elections, however, that this regressive and nostalgic constituency is now in the ascendancy and that Russia has re-set itself to fast-rewind, however, would be wrong. Yes, as the international observer teams reported, the use of state media and facilities by the Kremlin was disgracefully manipulative and gave the victorious United Russia Party that supports President Putin an unfair advantage.

Yes, the new Russian parliament will look considerably more reactionary and hostile to the free market than the old. Neither of the two reform parties - that is, parties with clearer reform agendas than United Russia's ambivalent slate - passed the 5 per cent bar to qualify for representation. Individually, their constituency candidates did poorly, too. There will be only 20 or 30 declared reformists in the 450-member Parliament.

But, and there are many buts, the cause of democratic and economic reform as such did not fare as badly as the ousting of the reform parties might suggest. Nor, in so far as their continually squabbling leaders were discredited, was this necessarily a bad thing.

First, if the two reformist parties, Yabloko and SPS, had joined forces, they would probably have been represented in the new parliament. Together, they took more than 8 per cent of the popular vote. In Moscow and St Petersburg, however, they took between them closer to 20 per cent and the Communists were erased. This suggests that where the beneficial results of free-market reforms are visible, reform parties garner more support.

Second, before writing off reformism in Russia, we need to know where its former voters have gone, and why. Many of them clearly stayed at home - which suggests they were not so discontented with the inevitable victory of the pro-Kremlin party that they were spurred to vote against it. Equally, many of them will have been dissatisfied with the reform party leaders, and with good reason. The box on the ballot-paper marked "against all candidates" attracted more than 4 per cent of votes - a record.

One of the startling realities of Russian politics is that many of those who campaigned for democracy in the late Eighties and formed the first post-Soviet parties still lead those parties today. By and large, though, they are not the most dynamic or colourful figures, and they have never, or only briefly, tasted power. Where the nationalists - with Vladimir Zhirinovsky on the right and the new Rodina party on the left - have smartened up their political act and adapted their policies to post Soviet Russia, the two reform parties are not only led by "yesterday's men", but stuck in the same policy furrow they ploughed more than a decade ago.

In their inertia, they resemble the Communists, except that their opposition in the last parliament was less apparent. More often than not, they allowed themselves to be co-opted by the Kremlin to pass watered-down reform legislation. This may be pragmatic politics, but it was not what many of their supporters had voted for.

The best hope for disillusioned reform voters now is that the shock of being excluded from parliament will force the parties to overhaul their whole approach: their policies, their methods and their leaders. The most productive result would be a single party with new leaders prepared to fight the new battles and form a real extra-parliamentary opposition. The 8 per cent of Russians who support reform (and the unknown number of reform-voters who stayed at home) deserve better leadership than they had.

This does not mean, however, that they should expect to do significantly better next time round. Mr Putin's skill has been to sense and to occupy Russia's political centre. As remarkable as the fact that so many opposition leaders have remained the same over this crucial decade is the consistency of the political balance between the centre and the forces to the left and right.

The centre of Russian opinion, however, has moved far. There was a time, and it was not the turbulent years of the 1920s, but during Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms 15 years ago, when those responsible for planting a bomb outside a luxury, privately-owned establishment in Moscow would have been targeting the new "bourgeoisie", and many would have applauded. Those days, at least, are past.