Putin’s Russia – can hitting rock bottom destroy the system?

Russia's Duma

The election of the Russian Duma was a paradox. On the one hand, fourteen parties were on the list; only seven parties were permitted to run five years ago. Ela Pamfilova, considered to be a liberal, has replaced an old associate of Vladimir Putin, Vladimir Churov as the Chairwoman of the Central Election Commission and PARNAS (People’s Freedom Party). Other opposition parties’ representatives have openly criticized the President live, on national television.

On the other hand, no member of the opposition has been elected to the parliament, and the United Russia, to be the so considered support of the regime, received a constitutional majority unanimously, and the citizens of Moscow and Saint Petersburg that five years ago took to the streets in the aftermath of the election, this time chose not to step outside, nor come to the ballot boxes. So, what is the Duma in Russia and what role does it play in the political process?

History

The Russian Duma served as a real political actor until 2003, when the newly-formed United Russia along with Putin joined the fight for the election. Back then, the administrational resources and the popularity of V. Putin made the absolute control of the lower house possible, forming a faction of 2/3 for the first time in the history of the new Russian Federation.

The first contributing factor is the early history of relations between the President and the Parliament in Russia. As already acknowledged, until 2003 the Duma was a relatively powerful centre of the alternative to the executive powers – the President and his environment. A continuous power struggle was present among the two institutions, dating back to 1993. At first, President Boris Yeltsin represented the reformative powers, while the Duma – the conservative, the nomenclature.

Later, the confrontation turned into a material, rather than ideological struggle – who or what will wield more influence in solving the crucial economic and political issues, that virtually became one; who will control and distribute the resources of the state and the profits collected? A contraposition as such, served as a shortcoming of Russian reforms and contributed to a fall of the democratic transformation process that B. Yeltsin had tried to implement. Nevertheless, the conflict between the executive and the legislative powers has programmed the tendencies of strong power-centralization (giving the power to the President).

In 1993 Yeltsin, using military force to breakdown the parliament, controlled by Soviet nomenclature, took the chance, drafted and later ratified the new Russian constitution, not curbing the presidential powers. Even the state control was formally given to the executive, leaving no possible space for creating balance or intermission. In Russia, the relations of the President and the Parliament had never been built on constructive basis, hence it is not surprising that the side wielding more power sought for all the possible opportunities to be in control of the other. Similarly, Yeltsin had a small circle of oligarchs and others close to him, the so-called family circle. By letting Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky and others to grow rich at the expense of the state, Yeltsin ensured their financial, informational support and security, and guaranteed a space to dominate in the political and economic fields as well. He was not motivated to fully consume the role of the parliament, since out in the open he claimed democracy and any understatement of the parliament would be a blow to his reputation, as to financial support in the future, in the eyes of the Western partners.

Vladimir Putin, elected in 2000 took a different direction. Having learned from his predecessor’s mistakes he understood that strong or at least partially autonomic Duma can be a fall back to both democratic and authoritarian changes. Putin took advantage of the presidential powers ratified by the constitution, the disappointment of the society in Russia’s economic and international status decline and prevailing nostalgia for the stability and strength, and eliminated Duma, together with Russia’s Federation Council and all parliament from the field of political competition. The “sterilization” of Duma was carried out by forming the already mentioned United Russia, when in 2001 Yevgeny Primakov’s “Fatherland – All Russia” and Sergey Shoygu‘s “Unity“ merged, and eliminating the sovereignty of alternative political powers. Additionally, disposing the disobedient oligarchs that financed favorable political parties for their interests, suppressing the alternative media and creating quasi-constitutional institutions, imitating representation of society’s interests, such as “Nashi”. The Duma itself did not change – elections were held regularly, however, the reforms and informal distribution of the power turned it into a political dead body – an office, stamping draft laws, coming from the Presidential administration.

Moreover, another important factor showing the decay of Duma, is the lack of interest from other influential political actors. The “game” has finally moved from the Parliament to the Presidential administration. Unlike in Ukraine, where the Verkhovna Rada and the opportunity to control it have always remained the essential object, for formal informal central powers to compete for, the Duma in Russia was pushed away to a political corner. Even though after the Duma election in December, 2011 hundreds of thousands of people, dispirited with falsifying the votes, took to the streets, this was not the rebirth of the Duma, but rather the consequence of D. Medvedev’s unsuccessful experiment called “modernization”. Since the decision-making levers (power institutions and opportunities to distribute rents) remained in the hands of the President and those closest to him, the informal players, temporary disruption was dealt with fairly quickly.

New lessons were learnt as well. With 2016 election approaching, the system of formally registering parties was liberalized, although the rules for public and political organizations operating were made stricter, such like media and internet censorship and the Foreign Agent Law. In addition, the public self-censorship incentives were strengthened (higher fines for the vaguely defined acts of terrorism and against the state). The outcome was a visually more liberal election but virtually limited opportunities for the public and the alternative political parties, and withdrawal from politics. Finally, this withdrawal was symbolical in that it translated into the least voter turnout ever (in particular, politically influential Moscow and Saint Petersburg) and the greatest victory for the United Russia in the history.

Find the guilty and sooth the strong

The expectations that this election would be an opportunity for the public to express the distrust in the politics of their government and take to the streets, fell short, if there were any to begin with. Russia’s ruling elite, using the strategy “Find the guilty and sooth the strong” has successfully minimized the gravest risks. On the one hand, the aggravation of the relations with the West on the question of Ukraine and Russian’s increased participation in the Middle East helped legitimize the domestic issues to the public – “The West do not love us and seek to smother us, but we must wait”. The public took that without a careful consideration. Never in the history has a simple Russian man lived lavishly and safely, but was used to suffering for the greatness of the Russian nation instead. By becoming a significant player in Syria, Iran and other issues in the Middle East, Russia has ensured its strong status not only in the international politics, but a distant and composed reaction of the West (the USA) to the domestic state processes.

Finally, reforming the power structure (the creation of personal National guards) and directing military actions to the international arena (military actions in Syria), the ruling elite has secured itself from possible domestic incidents.

In the presence of economic difficulties, the Russian regime has adapted not only structural-political and economic reforms, but also balanced the powers and rents in the so-called dominating coalition, among which a dozen of informally influential actors, controlling the security structures and the biggest energy and military industry companies. We should admit that any rationally-driven politician, will tend to take advantage of the opportunity presented to secure the power, by getting involved into an international conflict, instead of leaving and losing power, privileges and personal security. Furthermore, the institutional environment created and the public’s stand, urges to take on the support of the status quo, rather than the way of unforeseeable reforms – the consequences of Yeltsin’s “Shock Therapy” are still far-reaching in Russia.

Precisely because of these reasons, the ruling elite of today, that does not take the public as a real source of changes, decides on much more important issues, related to its survival – how to simultaneously keep Rosneft and Gazprom happy and how to the accommodate the interests of Russia’s Federal Security Service and other security structures. How to withhold the military forces and its leadership and keep them separated from domestic politics and how to curb actors like Ramzan Kadyrov, that remain loyal only if generously fed by the central power. For now, the questions are addressed by reducing the circle of the influential, coming after the rents (the departure of Vladimir Yakunin and Sergei Ivanov) and rearranging the structure of the most important institutions, appointing those personally loyal and grateful to the President for their careers. After all, the important thing is not to win, but to take part.

Undoubtedly, a share is given to the public as well. There are no intentions to rule out the election and in some way, the election is becoming ritualized, since it virtually remains the only formal legitimacy of the government. A formal legitimacy as such, is necessary not only to sooth the public, but also to validate the position on the international level – “We hold elections, what else do you want?”. That is why PARNAS can participate in the election and Alexei Navalny can express his views publicly. Except there are no chances to actually win something. But if a foolish Olympian does not confine with taking part and instead climbs on the podium, the arbitrators announce a foul and change the rules. That is how democracy becomes procedural, but not consolidated.

Where changes (may) come from

To analyse the events in Russia, one must take off his institutional, normative and western rose-colored glasses. Intending to evaluate the processes in Russia, looking through the lens of democratic standards oftentimes leads to false conclusions. Concepts claiming disorder and instability for some mean order and stability in Russia. I would even foresee that changes (but not necessarily democratic) in Russia are more expected from Igor Sechin or Putin, rather than from the public or the pro-democratic-considered powers. In today’s Russia, while the EU is solving its identity and survival crisis, and the US has its eyes on the Middle East and the Pacific, questions more significant than the Duma election are the questions, related to the so-called “tax manoeuvre” in the energy sector or the changes (some planned and some already taking place) in the system of security structures. Certainly, it is possible that the economic situation growing heavy and obvious disregard of the public opinion and interests will gradually break through and wipe out the system. But we need to be realistic – the explosion may be caused not by the will to be free and democratic, but the imbalanced informal interests of the elite. And the outcomes of the explosion may even be a more radical authoritarianism or revanchism.

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