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Russia's other Olympic powerhouse – in parliament

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But the meteoric, Kremlin-ordained path to power of these celebrity politicians – some of whom, such as Bolshoi Ballet star Svetlana Zakharova, have kept their day jobs – is beginning to stir controversy, even in the state-guided media.

Parlaying stardom into a successful political career is not unique to Russia – think Arnold Schwarzenegger – but critics complain that few of Russia's new parliamentarians, who also include a famous filmmaker and a popular singer, have done any political heavy-lifting at all. As a result, they say, the Duma now features far less debate and evokes memories of Soviet days, when the USSR's rubber-stamp parliament was stuffed by party fiat with "hero workers," poets, cosmonauts and other Communist archetypes.

Masha Lipman, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow, points back to the Kremlin-authored 2005 overhaul of the electoral code that eliminated direct elections and empowered party elders to simply appoint the candidate list they wanted. Voters now choose a party, not a representative. While the new system is defended by some as a stepping stone to full democracy, Ms. Lipman says it's opened the door to individuals who lack the expertise to govern. "These [celebrity politicians] have no say in policy, and some of them clearly aren't even interested," she says.

The UR parliamentary caucus includes a gaggle of striking young women dubbed "Putin's beauties" for posing in various states of undress for men's magazines. Even the cautious state TV news shows the women giggling during Duma sessions or chatting on designer cell phones.

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