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The humiliation of Russia’s ruling party in the Dec. 4 parliamentary election—and the eruption of antigovernment protests that followed it—demonstrate just how fed up Russians are with a regime that has brought them crushing corruption and 12 years of monolithic rule. They also expose a deeper problem: the lack of a viable way to bring about peaceful democratic change.
The official results, which shrank the parliamentary majority of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party to 53 percent from 70 percent, only partly reflect what was a surprising triumph of grassroots activism. Hundreds of Russians, many of whom had never before shown much interest in politics, came out to act as monitors and document the Kremlin’s efforts to “win” the vote. Thanks to the monitors’ vigilance, we know that the elections were probably much worse for United Russia than the official tally suggests. Observers reported thousands of violations and posted videos on the Internet. One showed prestuffed voting urns at a just-opened polling station. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe noted “several serious indications of ballot box stuffing.”
One homegrown monitoring organization, Citizen Observer, estimated that United Russia won only 25.9 percent of the vote at those Moscow voting stations where monitors found minimal violations, compared with an official result of 46.6 percent throughout the city. The lower number meshes with an exit poll by the Public Opinion Foundation, which gave United Russia 27.5 percent of the Moscow vote.
The Kremlin’s performance adds to mounting evidence that its implicit social compact with Russians—economic growth in return for a firm grip on power—is falling apart, particularly since President Dmitry Medvedev announced in September that he would step down to make way for what could be 12 more years of Putin’s Russia. A nascent middle class is losing patience with its lack of control over officials whose greed and lawlessness complicate everything from running a business to getting a driver’s license.
Beyond protest, though, these elections haven’t achieved much positive change. The Kremlin has so assiduously eliminated any viable competition that the official opposition offers little outlet for legitimate dissent.
The votes United Russia lost, for example, went mainly to two parties that owe their continued existence largely to the Kremlin: the Communists and the deceptively named Liberal Democrats, led by veteran ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. A third gainer was Just United Russia, a socialist party created with Kremlin support. This so-called opposition isn’t likely to undermine the Kremlin on important parliamentary votes. All this means that we can expect tensions between an increasingly desperate Kremlin and a disenfranchised electorate to grow.
Putin’s best option is to heed the people’s message and hold free and fair presidential elections in March. If the government can’t offer a legitimate mechanism to transfer power, a violent Russian Spring is not unthinkable.
A new study of pediatricians’ prescribing habits has revealed something old and something new. The study, which looked at tens of thousands of visits to pediatricians outside hospitals from 2006 to 2008, found that antibiotics are overused. At the same time—this is the new part—even when antibiotics are called for, doctors are often using the wrong kinds, making it that much easier for germs to develop immunity.
Increasing bacterial resistance leaves everyone more vulnerable to infection by superbugs capable of causing ever longer, more serious illness. The cost to the U.S. health-care system is upward of $20 billion a year and untold thousands of lives, according to a 2009 study.
We need to find ways to fight overuse and to encourage the development of fresh drugs capable of killing bacteria that have become resistant. That means persuading drug companies to create new antibiotics. It’s not something the market naturally encourages them to do, because antibiotics, used irregularly and only for a week or two at a time, aren’t as profitable as medicines for chronic health problems. What’s more, the antibiotics we have still work pretty well for most patients. And drug companies understandably grouse that the Food and Drug Administration’s requirements for approval are onerous and unclear. Since the 1980s, the number of new antibiotics approved by the FDA has been falling steadily. From 1983 to 1987, 16 received the go-ahead; since 2008, only two have.
Pharmaceutical companies should be given inducements to invest in new antibiotics. The research and development they engage in should be supported with research grants and rewarded with tax credits. Any new drugs they develop should be given patent extensions and reasonable protection from lawsuits. All such incentives are recommended by the Infectious Diseases Society of America, an organization of doctors. And Congress should pass the bipartisan GAIN bill (Generating Antibiotic Incentives Now), which would direct the FDA to streamline and clarify its process for approving new antibiotics.
Since the advent of antibiotics seven decades ago, we’ve generally held the upper hand against bacterial infections. To keep our advantage, it’s become essential to know exactly which germs we’re up against, to watch and resist their progress in evading the drugs we have, and to continually bring new weapons to the fight.
To read Jonathan Alter on Newt Gingrich’s rise and William D. Cohan on Jon Corzine’s fall, go to: Bloomberg.com/view.