20 years under Putin: a timeline

On December 7, 2003, Russia held parliamentary elections that were, for the first time in the country’s post-Soviet history, assessed as not conforming to democratic standards. The liberal opposition was thrown out of Parliament, and the Duma, in the words of its own speaker, became “not a place for discussion.” IMR Senior Policy Advisor Vladimir Kara-Murza, a candidate in the 2003 elections, notes the catastrophic fall in standing of Russia’s legislative branch of government over the past decade.



The year 2003 was a turning point in the evolution of Vladimir Putin’s regime from a “hybrid,” semi-authoritarian political system to one marked by full-fledged authoritarianism. In the summer of that year, the Kremlin pulled the plug on Russia’s last nationwide independent television network; in the fall, with the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, it sent a clear signal that both the judicial system and private business were now under its full control. There was only one remaining obstacle: the State Duma, which continued to function as an independent branch of government and, despite its stable pro-Kremlin majority, still featured real debates and had a real opposition.

This “problem” was solved by the parliamentary elections of December 7, 2003, that were, in the unforgettable words of European observers, “free, but certainly not fair.” Formalities were mostly observed—almost all opposition parties were allowed on the ballot (a fact that today makes that campaign seem like a model of democracy,) with the exception of Liberal Russia, whose list was headed by former Duma speaker Ivan Rybkin and political émigré Boris Berezovsky. The two largest parties of the liberal opposition—the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) and Yabloko, both represented in the lower house of Parliament—decided to contest the elections separately, which was, without doubt, a serious mistake that would cost the country dearly. The attempt by Mikhail Khodorkovsky in January 2003 to convince SPS and Yabloko to join in a unified pro-democracy bloc headed by Boris Nemtsov, Grigory Yavlinsky, and Irina Khakamada was unsuccessful. Each side blamed the other for the failure of the talks. In any case, however, opinion polls taken at the start of the campaign showed both Yabloko and SPS as crossing the 5 percent threshold necessary to enter the Duma, with 6 percent and 5 percent of the vote, respectively. The Communists received 28 percent of the vote in the poll, while Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party received 23 percent—the same number that its predecessor, Unity, received in the competitive 1999 Duma elections.

Election Day was marred by the same violations that eight years later, in different political circumstances, would lead to protests by more than 100,000 people in the streets of Moscow; these violations included manipulations of early voting; ballot-stuffing; and the rewriting of protocols.

But in 2003, unlike in 1999, all national television networks were controlled from the same place and were rooting for the same team. The final report on the 2003 elections issued by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) diplomatically stated that Russian television channels “failed to meet their legal obligation to provide equal treatment to electoral participants.” According to the results of daily media monitoring conducted between October 1 and December 6, 2003, by Transparency International, United Russia received 44 percent of all party mentions in the news, while the Communists received 21 percent. More importantly, when the coverage of the ruling party was positive or neutral, the Communists were presented in a clearly unfavorable light. The two democratic opposition parties, SPS and Yabloko, received 12 percent of news mentions between them (8 percent and 4 percent, respectively). Meanwhile, national TV channels provided nonstop coverage of the activities of United Russia leaders in their capacity as government ministers, regional governors, and so on—in other words, the channels engaged in illegal campaigning on behalf of the party. According to Transparency International, “coverage of United Russia constituted campaigning under the electoral legislation, and if it had been paid for according to the requirements of the law it would have cost an amount exceeding the maximum spending permitted for the whole campaign.”

Another defining characteristic of the 2003 elections was the merger between United Russia and the state bureaucracy, which manifested itself not only during the campaign, but also during voting and the vote count. In many instances, United Russia campaign headquarters were located in local government buildings, and the party’s candidates used the administrative infrastructure for campaigning purposes. Twenty-nine regional governors joined United Russia’s electoral lists; after the election, they refused to take up their Duma seats and were replaced by people who were virtually unknown to voters. Election Day itself was marred by the same violations that eight years later, in different political circumstances, would lead to protests by more than 100,000 people in the streets of Moscow; these violations included manipulations of early voting, absentee certificates, and portable ballot boxes; ballot-stuffing; the rewriting of protocols; and refusals to provide certified copies of protocols to poll monitors. As analysts from the Information Science for Democracy (INDEM) Foundation noted, “as a result of the dominance of administrative resources, citizens in the last election were practically excluded from the process of picking its winners; the only thing that was required of them was to come to the polling place and vote—the result itself was predetermined.”


According to the parallel vote count conducted as part of the FairGame Project, both pro-democracy parties received enough votes to enter the Russian Parliament in December 2003 (left: SPS leader Boris Nemtsov, right: Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky.)


According to a joint report by observers from the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, in the 2003 elections, the Russian authorities violated at least two of their obligations under the OSCE Copenhagen Document—namely, those spelled out in Paragraph 5.4 (“a clear separation between the State and political parties”) and Paragraph 7.8 (“unimpeded access to the media on a non-discriminatory basis for all political groupings and individuals wishing to participate in the electoral process”). The observers concluded that “the State Duma elections failed to meet many OSCE and Council of Europe commitments for democratic elections.”

Incidentally, the author of this article knows about the use of “administrative resources” in the 2003 elections not only from reports by European observers, but from firsthand experience. In December 2003, I was a parliamentary candidate in Moscow’s Chertanovsky district, jointly backed by SPS and Yabloko. The state machine diligently worked for the predetermined winner, former KGB officer and local “oligarch” Vladimir Gruzdev (the current governor of the Tula region). Advertising agencies flatly refused to accept our campaign posters; the few billboards that we did manage to rent had lighting cut off every evening; the local newspaper with our ad was never delivered to residents; our leaflets disappeared almost as soon as they were posted on information boards; and the sound during my appearance on a local television channel was cut for “technical reasons.” Our team spent half of the time allowed for campaigning fighting attempts by our opponents to annul my registration as a candidate, while on voting day itself, residents of other Moscow districts were found to have unlawfully voted in Chertanovsky. Similar and worse examples of the ruling party’s “campaigning” methods were repeated countless times across Russia.

The results of the “free but unfair” 2003 elections are well known. United Russia came in first, with 37.6 percent of the vote, and, thanks to the support of “independent” legislators elected in individual districts, took 68 percent of the seats in the Duma. The Communists lost half of their parliamentary caucus; many of their votes went to the nationalist Motherland bloc hastily created by the Kremlin. As for the democratic opposition, it was thrown out of Parliament altogether. A parallel vote count conducted by the Communists as part of the FairGame Project showed that some 3.5 million extra ballots were stuffed in the ballot boxes, while vote tallies from 60,000 polling places (two-thirds of the total) did not match the officially declared results.

The 2003–2007 State Duma—the first Parliament without democrats in Russia’s post-Soviet history—rubberstamped Putin’s counter-reforms and reduced Russia’s legislative branch to the status of a Kremlin sub-department.

According to the parallel vote count, both liberal parties made it in into Parliament, with Yabloko receiving 5.9 percent and SPS 5.1 percent of the vote (the official results were 4.3 percent and 4.0 percent, respectively). This result would have given the two pro-democracy parties some fifty seats in the Russian Duma. This relatively small (mathematically speaking) fraud had a far-reaching effect: “cleansed” from the liberals, the 2003–2007 State Duma—the first Parliament without democrats in Russia’s post-Soviet history—became, in the words of its own speaker, “not a place for discussion,” a body that dutifully rubberstamped Putin’s 2004 counter-reforms (including the abolition of gubernatorial elections) and reduced Russia’s legislative branch of government to the status of a Kremlin sub-department. The subsequent elections of 2007 and 2011—both unfree and unfair—only confirmed this tendency.

For ten years now, Russia has lived without a legitimate Parliament. During this time, the words “State Duma”—once a symbol of political freedom, hearkening back to the 1905 victory of Russia’s civil society over autocracy—became a derogatory term. So much so, in fact, that in a recent Levada Center poll, 43 percent of Russians said that they saw no need for the Duma. These sentiments, needless to say, reflect society’s attitudes not to Parliament and parliamentarianism, but to the caricature that is the present Russian State Duma—a “mad printer,” as it came to be known for rubberstamping one Kremlin-inspired repressive law after another. Restoring the damaged reputation of representative bodies must be one of the key tasks of a future Russian government that will, sooner or later, replace the current inhabitants of the Kremlin.