When the Levada Centre recently ran a poll asking members of the public who they thought were the richest members of Russia’s ruling elite, over half responded that the country’s fattest cats were the members of the Duma and the Federation Council, the lower and upper houses of the Russian Parliament. Government ministers, senior officials in the presidential administration and even the directors of state owned corporations were seen as much less well off.
Broadcaster Vladimir Posner has apologised for his 'slip of tongue' referring to the State Duma as the State Dura (fool). Angry MPs are looking to take their revenge by passing a law banning him from working for Russian state-owned TV channels. Photo (cc) Dmitry Rozhkov
The poll results do not in fact mean that Russian MPs are filthy rich, and corporate directors pretty poor – some of them have salaries comparable with those of their counterparts in the Western European private sector. But in the last few months Russians in general have come to believe that the legislature is the most corrupt part of government, because this is what they have been told by both the opposition and the pro-Kremlin media.
‘When we leave, our places will be taken by boys’
The public’s perception is to some extent justified. There are indeed millionaires among MPs – take for example the soft drink baron Nikolai Bortsov, who in fact recently announced in an interview that he may be standing down from the Duma, and predicted that many other wealthy MPs would follow his example.
'In the last few months Russians have come to believe that the legislature is the most corrupt part of government, because this is what they have been told by both the opposition and the pro-Kremlin media.'
Bortsov became an MP in the mid 1990s, but is now saying he will not stand for re-election in 2016, for two reasons – the opposition media’s increased interest in MPs’ wealth and a fall in public respect for MPs. He described, for example, how when he arrived at the national farmers’ conference, the police made him park his car several blocks away, although it had a parliamentary pass on the windscreen. The police have also stopped answering official MPs’ questions. ‘It was never like that before’, said Bortsov, and warned that ’all the rich people will leave Parliament, and our places will be taken by boys who are only happy in front of a computer and who claim that the stupidest MP is cleverer than an average Russian. Let them sit in Parliament then.’ We’ll return to the boy with this high opinion of his own intellectual capacities below.
The Russian parliament appeared in its present form in December 1993, after Boris Yeltsin dissolved the Supreme Soviet, the country’s highest legislative organ in Soviet times. But on the very day of elections to the new body, Yeltsin pushed through a constitution that made Russia a presidential, rather than a parliamentary, republic; the Duma was to have fewer powers than the Congress of People’s Deputies that it replaced.
The president, however, couldn’t exercise his own new sweeping powers, since his supporters failed to gain a majority in parliament, where the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party, led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, won the highest number of seats, followed by the Communist Party under Gennady Zyuganov. These two powerful fractions united to give the Kremlin a unpleasant surprise when at the very start of the parliamentary session they declared an amnesty for the leaders of both the attempted coup to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991 and the bloody standoff between the Kremlin and the Supreme Soviet in 1993.
'The Duma had fewer powers than the Congress of People’s Deputies that it replaced, but MPs were not afraid to flex what muscle they had: rumours abounded about suitcases full of cash appearing in the Chamber before a vote on the latest budget.'
The new parliament didn’t attempt to seize control from the president, fearing it might meet the same fate as its predecessor. But the MPs were not afraid to flex what muscle they had: rumours abounded among the elite about suitcases full of money appearing in the Duma before a vote on the latest budget, to secure parliamentary approval.
Membership of the Duma also brought parliamentary immunity. The satirist Viktor Shenderovich even wrote a parody of the popular children’s poetry book ‘Bad Advice’, in which he gave MPs suggestions about infringing all kinds of public order regulations, and then, when the police turned up, showing their ID and getting off free. And indeed, even when members were accused of serious crimes, the Duma was extremely unwilling to withdraw their parliamentary privilege.
The Duma’s power was at its height in 1998, another crisis year in which Russia almost defaulted on its foreign debts and was forced to devalue the rouble. In the spring of that year, Yeltsin dismissed his Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and appointed in his place Sergei Kirienko. After the default crisis in August the president twice tried to bring back Chernomyrdin as PM, but both times parliament refused to confirm his appointment. If this happened a third time Yeltsin would have had to dissolve the Duma and call new elections, but public opinion polls were forecasting a landslide victory for the communists. The president gave in and a compromise figure,Yevgeny Primakov, was appointed instead.
A watered down United Russia party meeting
In the 1990s Russia’s MPs enjoyed real power, money and respect. But in the following years all this began to disappear. It all began with the unexpectedly successful debut of a new coalition bloc, ‘Yedinstvo’ (Unity) – the forerunner of United Russia (UR) – in the 1999 parliamentary elections. ‘The Bear’, as it was popularly dubbed (its initials spelt out the Russian word for bear, Medved), lost no time in making its presence felt, concluding a secret pact with the Communists and Zhirinovsky’s group against two liberal fractions, the SPS (Union of Rightist Forces) and ‘Yabloko’, as well as the ‘Fatherland’ fraction controlled by the Mayor of Moscow Yury Luzhkov. As a result, the communists and United Russians seized most of the key positions in the Duma, though later on the communists, who had joined forces with the liberals, were forced to give up many of their posts, including the speakership.
'Changing the constitution was more difficult, but when Dmitry Medvedev, announced in 2008 that he wanted to extend the parliamentary term from four years to five, and the presidential term from four years to six, these significant changes were accepted almost without discussion'
After its election victories in 2003 and 2007, UR no longer needed to enter a coalition with any other fraction, apart from its traditional ally the Liberal Democrats. Debate, not to mention ‘lobbying’ with suitcases full of cash, became a thing of the past. Independent MPs also disappeared as single member constituencies were abolished and all MPS were elected by a proportional representation system based on closed party lists. So any legislation proposed by the Kremlin was passed without any problem.
Changing the constitution was more difficult, as it had to be approved by three quarters of MPs, but after the 2007 elections this problem disappeared as well. When the new president, Dmitry Medvedev, announced in 2008 that he wanted to extend the parliamentary term from four years to five, and the presidential term from four years to six, these significant changes were accepted almost without discussion. The opposition called the Duma ‘a United Russia party meeting, diluted a little by the Liberal Democrats, Communists and ‘A Just Russia’’ (legislation allows only four parties to be represented in the Russian parliament at once). And the opinions of the last two are worth practically nothing – the communists and ‘Just Russians’ abstained as a body from the vote, but it made no difference.
So it went on until 2011. It looked as though the elections that year would produce a similar parliament, happy to rubber stamp any decisions taken by the Kremlin or government.
The average intellectual level and the haywire printer
The first scandal connected with the Duma elected in December 2011 was the conduct of the election itself. The protest meetings at the time – at first forbidden and later permitted – were a direct reaction to the blatant rigging that had gone on. Muscovites in particular were incensed by the fact that despite all the pre-election polls showing that UR would win fewer votes in the capital than in regional centres, the official results claimed it was the most popular party in Moscow after all. The presidential election in March 2012 was also tainted by fraud, but protest was more muted. So from the start the new parliament looked less legitimate than either its predecessor or President Putin. Its composition had also changed. Some veterans, including speaker Boris Gryzlov, resigned their seats, but there were also new young MPs, most of them functionaries of pro-Kremlin youth movements. It was one of these, Ilya Kostunov, who gave the infamous interview where he declared that the most stupid MP had a higher intellectual level than the average Russian. There was a furore and Kostunov apologised, but many older MPs said that nothing like this could have happened in the past.
The Duma has also acquired a new nickname, ‘the haywire printer’, after the speed with which it passes the most scandalous new bits of legislation: the law imposing prohibitive fines on people who take part in protests; the ban on NGOs receiving donations from abroad; the punishment of prison hunger strikes; the increase in MPs’ perks and their aides’ salaries. In the 90s most such controversial bills would have been unlikely to get as far as a vote. During Putin’s first and second presidential terms at least a year would have passed between their first and second readings and by the third reading their content would have been toned down considerably. Now, however, even the most contentious bills are rushed through in less than a month and in the process their provisions become more, rather than less, harsh.
'The Duma has also acquired a new nickname, ‘the haywire printer’, after the speed with which it passes the most scandalous new bits of legislation.'
There were also losses among MPs. The ‘Just Russia’ member Gennady Gudkov, for example, was, on the advice of the Kremlin, expelled from the Duma, ostensibly for violating parliamentary rules by carrying on business activities while also holding his seat, but in fact for attending opposition rallies. In the past MPs would fight hard on the behalf of their colleagues, but now they happily threw out the ‘oppositionist’. To give an appearance of even-handedness a UR member, Alexei Knyshov, was also expelled for the same offence.
At the end of December 2012 the Duma broke its own record for rapidity in its legislative activity. After the US Congress passed the Magnitsky Law, the Kremlin ordered the Duma to come up with a tit-for-tat measure, and to do it by 31st December. At first the MPs wanted to simply mirror the US law by banning the entry of certain American officials into Russia, but at the second reading an amendment suddenly appeared forbidding the adoption of Russian orphans by citizens of the USA. Despite objections from some members of the government and even the usually biddable Foreign Ministry, the law was passed. Officially it was called the Dima Yakovlev Law, after a young boy who died after being adopted by Americans, but the public dubbed it the Bastards’ Law, and during a rally protesters carried placards with photos of MPs who had supported it.
Enriching the language: the state fool, pekhting and political prostitution
The Duma tried not to notice the demonstrators with their placards, but it was much more difficult to ignore other unpleasant things that happened soon after. First, in one of his TV shows the veteran commentator Vladimir Posner said that that Russia had, not a State Duma, but a State Dura (literally, ‘fool’). Outraged MPs demanded a law forbidding people with multiple citizenship from working for Russian Federal TV (Posner holds passports from three countries: Russia, USA and France). He has apologised for this ‘slip of the tongue’, but not everyone is convinced that it was an accident, and, whatever the truth of the matter, the name ‘State Fool’ has stuck.
Better days...Vladimir Pekhtin, then leader of the Unity faction in the Duma, with Vladimir Putin in 2002. This February, Pekhtin, at the time head of the Duma Ethics Committee, was forced to resign after it became public that he had failed to declare property he owned in Florida to the tax authorities. Photo (cc) kremlin.ru
This incident was soon followed by another unpleasantness for MPs. The prominent opposition figure Alexei Navalny published documents showing that Vladimir Pekhtin, head of the Duma Ethics Committee, owned property in Florida which he had not declared to the tax authorities. Pekhtin’s parliamentary colleagues initially tried to stand up for him, but the evidence was so conclusive that UR officials recommended he resign his seat. This has led to yet another new piece of Russian political terminology – ‘pekhting’ – meaning the search for and publication of evidence of MPs’ undisclosed property at home and abroad. This incident has astonished and shaken United Russia MPs, who never expected that one of them could be thrown out of politics on the initiative of an opposition figure.
'In one of his TV shows the veteran commentator Vladimir Posner said that that Russia had, not a State Duma, but a State Dura (literally, ‘fool’). He apologised for this ‘slip of the tongue’, but not everyone is convinced it was an accident, and in any case the name ‘State Fool’ for the Duma has stuck.'
The next blow came from the media. The popular tabloid ‘MK’ carried an article accusing three female United Russia MPs of ‘political prostitution’ - switching, according to the paper, their political positions according to the Kremlin’s needs. Their UR colleague Andrei Isayev waded into MK on their behalf, threatening to punish its journalists for this insult, and the paper’s editor Pavel Gusev complained about him to the police, but the case didn’t go further than mutual insults, and the MPs were forced to swallow their pique.
Just the kind of parliament Putin needs
It’s becoming obvious why being an MP has few attractions for business people or even politicians. MPs may enjoy a large salary and lots of perks, but their work brings them endless hassles, investigations and insults. Even parliamentary immunity, so valuable in the 90s, has been devalued. Only a few days ago MP and businessman Konstantin Shirshov was advised to resign his seat, and another MP, Oleg Mikheyev, was stripped of his immunity and is about to be tried for corruption offences like an ordinary Russian citizen. Senator Anatoly Lysakov has introduced a bill minimalising the formalities around kicking an MP out of the Duma: previously this required a court order, but in future it will take a simple vote.
The Duma’s authority is at a low ebb, and it is constantly under attack from both the opposition and much of the official media. But this is precisely why rumours about its premature dissolution are unfounded. The Russian parliament’s lower house continues to happily pass whatever laws are proposed by the Kremlin. A new set of MPs might not be so biddable. Besides, all the mud being thrown at the Duma distracts attention from the government and Vladimir Putin personally. The Kremlin has no objection to MPs being rated as the richest and most dishonest people in Russia. As long as it doesn’t bring down Putin’s own ratings.