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With Putin Set To Win, What Power Do Russians Really Have In Parliamentary Elections?

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There's been a lot of Russia in this year's presidential campaign, including allegations that Russia hacked Democrats and Donald Trump's praise for Vladimir Putin. Well, the Russians get to vote in elections of their own.

Tomorrow, they'll choose 450 representatives to the Duma. That's the lower house of the national legislature. NPR's Corey Flintoff has just completed his assignment as our correspondent in Moscow and joins us in our studios. Corey, nice to see you face to face.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Nice to see you, Scott.

SIMON: And you couldn't just do this two-way in your robe, right?

FLINTOFF: No, it's a little disconcerting to be in the studio.

SIMON: I'll bet. So how much power does the Russian Duma actually have? Is it anything more than a rubber stamp for Vladimir Putin?

FLINTOFF: Frankly, no. It's an enormous assembly. It's bigger than our U.S. House of Representatives. But it is essentially a rubber stamp for laws that are proposed by the government and approved by President Putin.

SIMON: How strong and palpable is any opposition movement in Russia today?

FLINTOFF: Not very anymore. I mean, you recall that when these elections were held before in 2011, they were followed by mass demonstrations in cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg in response to allegations of really widespread, blatant vote fraud.

So the - you know, the Kremlin has essentially learned its lesson. For one thing, it cracked down really hard on the opposition, made it very difficult for real opposition parties to register themselves and take part in the elections.

And, you know, there's a feeling of fear among the opposition because, as you'll recall, just last year, one of the most broadly popular opposition leaders, Boris Nemtsov, was assassinated within sight of the Kremlin.

FLINTOFF: Is the fix in for these elections?

FLINTOFF: What people are saying is that the fix was in even before the campaign started because, as we say, the opposition is suppressed. The Kremlin controls the news media. So what the Russian electorate hears is overwhelmingly positive about the government and the ruling party. In fact, you know, in some of the Russian media, opposition or dissent is equated with treason.

SIMON: So when we say the fix is in, we don't necessarily mean anybody's marking ballots. It's not necessary by the time anybody gets to a polling station.

FLINTOFF: Right. I mean, the people are suggesting that there are - there will be some ballot-fixing just to increase the voter turnout or just to make things look a little better in some of the regions. But, in fact, there's really no need to rig these elections at all.

SIMON: What do these elections mean for Vladimir Putin?

FLINTOFF: I think that the advantage of the Duma for President Putin is that it helps spread some of the responsibility for legislation and policy, you know, especially for unpopular laws. For instance, there was a set of laws, anti-extremism laws, proposed in the Duma this year and championed by one of the most conservative members of the Duma.

That was something that the Kremlin was very interested in doing because it really represses opposition and dissent in the country. But because it seemed to emanate from the Duma, President Putin doesn't seem to be taking responsibility for it.

SIMON: Let me put you on the spot, finally, Corey, 'cause I think a lot of people are wondering this. As you see it, does Vladimir Putin really have a favorite in the U.S. presidential elections?

FLINTOFF: I think, overwhelmingly, Russian analysts and pro-government commentators would say that Donald Trump is the man whose election would best serve the interests of Russia.

SIMON: NPR's Corey Flintoff, back from Moscow, thanks so much for being with us.

FLINTOFF: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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