One feels an unshakable sense of déjà vu upon hearing about the recent train bombing near Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia. The more cynical, or paranoid, amongst us might be tempted to point the finger at shadowy security services - we are talking about Russia, after all, with oblique behind-the-scenes machinations. And one certainly cannot doubt that Putin did well out of the 1999 apartment bombings, just as GW Bush gained political capital out of 9/11. I would like to stress that I condemn all these attacks, and in no way sympathize with anti-American, anti-Israeli conspiracy theories that either CIA or Mossad planned the 9/11 attacks.
Regardless of the identity of the perpetrator, it seems likely that the Kremlin's announted party, United Russia, would gain political mileage out of security fears and patriotism. Less certain is the relative position of the opposition parties in the new Duma. Many analysts seem to be of the opinion that the liberals - in Russia encompassing both the neo-liberal economists at Union of Right Forces as well as Grigory Yavlinsky's social-democratic Yabloko - would be decimated and the Communist party reduced in strength. The Kremlin, and Putin, would thus be stronger than ever.
I would respectfully beg to differ. First of all, Union of Right Forces was pro-Putin after the '99 election, while today there is talk of its merger with Yabloko (another déjà vu here, reminding one of the absorption of the Liberal Party into the Democratic Party of Japan, though in this case it would be intriguing to see who absorbs who - URF is larger but more discredited, Yabloko has integrity but not much support). And demographics would continue to plague the Communists - they are in a similar position to the Conservatives in the UK, limited to an ever-graying support base. The closure of independent media outlets, on the other hand, might hurt the liberals more, simply on the strength of name recognition.
What, then, might happen today? I predict an increase in support for United Russia, though short of obtaining a two-thirds majority; a rout for the Communists, a slightly less steep decline for URF and a slight decline for Yabloko - its supporters have nowhere else to go, really, and the recent arrest of Khodorkovsky might play into the liberals' hands as much as it helps United Russia - those hankering for a strong state would desert the Communists for Putin, those wishing for a liberal democracy's respect for due process voting for Yabloko. The Kremlin would thus command roughly the same amount of parliamentarians, but this time they would be even more beholden to the President than ever before.
Update - my prediction seems to be almost spot on, at least when it comes to popular vote. Alas, one neglected to take in the impact of the 5% threshold - thanks to Yabloko and SPS' failure to come together for the election, they were both almost wiped out.
In any case, one wonders how much their planned election pact would have helped - it certainly would help in the first-past-the-post constituencies, but whether an election pact carrying 8% would result in its members receiving proportional seats is a rather technical matter.