Russia’s political system: what next?

Boris Dolgin
15 November 2008

Extending the constitutional terms

At the heart of the recent message from the President of Russia to the Federal Assembly was the peripheral, but unsuccessful, initiative to alter the constitutional term of the Duma.  It featured alongside the highly significant (for foreign policy) but no more successful initiative to respond to the deployment of American ABMs in Europe. 

It is clear that those behind these attempts to increase the presidential tenure and the constitutional term of the Duma have a poor grasp of numerical sequences or the analysis of cyclical processes. If the proposals are accepted, the presidential and parliamentary elections will over the next 30 years both coincide and/or fall in sequential years.  Perhaps this is why President Medvedev in Washington talked of returning to the old system in about 30 years?

The need to stabilise the system is not a very convincing justification for the new measures either.  The transition from one president to another in 2007-8 was deeply uncomfortable for many people, which is probably why it is being proposed that this medication should be taken less frequently. But the authors of the project are forgetting one important fact:  the longer the disease is allowed to continue, the more difficult it becomes to return to normal life afterwards.  The longer the presidency is in one pair of hands, the more difficult it will be to move on to another pair.  Reducing the frequency of the transitions risks seriously increasing the pain level.


The changes to the Constitution should not be over-dramatised: the precedent could be worrying, but the alterations as such are not necessarily negative.  They are not grounds for celebration either as the proposed measures would, as it were, retain in power some of the less successful parts of the Russian elite.  We should nonetheless be a bit more honest.  On the whole it doesn't really matter how often we have elections of the kind we had in 2007.  They were aimed at a safe reconfiguration of the 2007-8 power structure. They did not only failed to bring about an effective political debate. They resulted in an even greater sameness.   So what matters is not how often these elections take place, but that they should never happen again.

This is not insoluble - unlike the other problem of the presidential elections. Given the way our political system has evolved, these elections are unlikely to become truly competitive within the next 10 years.  The potential number of victors in a parliamentary election make this institution a great deal more flexible.

Factors for change

The system could evolve if there were a political will to liberalise from the top down. Or if the political forces interested in liberalisation were prepared to pursue their course of action without demanding the immediate destruction of the system. Or if a political movement were not constrained by tactical considerations.  Or even if the political system itself were fully developed.

We should focus on the following questions. Firstly, what influence could movements working against the system have? Secondly, what to do if there is no political will to liberalise from the top down?  These questions are linked.  A movement working against the system can push the authorities towards reform. It can involve the opposition within the system in developing plans and making key decisions. Then, at the moment of transition from one system to another, it can become an organic part of the new political system. 

This could happen, but if the authorities' tactical survival instinct is stronger than their strategic understanding of the need for reform, even the hint of a threat from outside the system could result in the regime clamping down. This is what happened in the second half of 2007.

If the liberal opposition within the system fears that it may become a screen for developments which are far from liberal, renewed ‘colour revolution' paranoia could mean that opposition outside the system would end up blocking any liberal changes.

We shall very soon find out how ‘Yabloko' and the recently formed ‘Right Cause', which are both within the system, will react to these challenges.  Also the soon-to-be-formed ‘Solidarity', which is outside the system.  Criticising the position from which attempts at influencing the system are launched (from within the system or outside it) is absurd, to say the least. This is all the more true when this takes place between members or sympathisers of the same group.

The influence of political forces within and against the system can be mixed.  Social structures which are not exactly in the system (although able to interact with any players) can make a conscious and constructive contribution to the process of liberalisation.  They are more interested in values, whereas the political parties on the whole concentrate more on goals.

Attempts to replace genuine social movements with NGOOG (non-governmental organisations organised by the government) can be dangerous in this context, though in certain circumstances they too can make a positive contribution as in the case of the Public Chamber.  But they must not claim to be the sole representatives of the interests of society in communications with the authorities.

A flare of violence

Recently there has been an unfortunate and dangerous tendency for politicians who are known to be outside the system and so-called honest representatives of the law to make common cause. Recent examples include:

  • repeated attacks on the leader of the union at the Ford factory, Alexei Etmanov
  • repeated attacks on the sociologist Karin Kleman, director of the "Collective Action" institute;
  • the attack on the military prosecutor of the Vladivostok garrison Oleg Dyomin, who has protested against violations of the law by naval officers;
  • the attack on Mikhail Beketov, Editor in Chief of  the newspaper "Khimki Truth"
  • the attack on Sergei Fedotov, leader of the Podmoskovye landowners cheated of their rights;
  • the setting fire to the car of Alexander Nazarov, chairman of the regional organisation "Social Policy Assistance"

We were warned there would be a rise in crimes committed by migrants who had lost their jobs, but instead we have seen an increase in violence from quite another quarter.  Migration has many problems associated with it, but Nazis are not the best diagnosticians.

We shall soon see if these attacks will really be investigated - rather than just for show - and the people who ordered them revealed.  The measures taken by the authorities will determine whether these crimes continue, for it is situations such as these that test how serious the intention is to deal with corruption and to put the judicial and law-enforcement systems in order.

The other interesting question is what will be discussed at the tenth party congress of "United Russia".  It's not that discussions at party ceremonial events have had much in the way of content, but the last two have been used to make quite important surprise announcements.  Even without these, however, we shall be able to learn quite a lot from the agenda, and the evidence of the ‘wind of change' means that we can expect the discussions to be more heated.


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