January 28, 2003
The Coming Big Bug Battle
By Boris Kagarlitsky
With parliamentary elections set for the end of this year, hoards of little-known politicos have thrown their hats into ring, hoping to win a seat in this rather incomprehensible legislative body. We all know that the State Duma is responsible for enacting new laws, but why Russia needs more laws is something that no one -- even the people who write them -- can explain. Living in accordance with the law is preferable to lawlessness, of course. But it's no secret that real life in Russia follows the law of necessity far more often than the law of the land.
The Duma also adopts the federal budget, however, and this is the source of our legislators' appeal and usefulness to their various backers. Pocketing a deputy or two is a minor business expense for major corporations, especially with oil prices at their current level. Major players can now afford to maintain a whole parliamentary faction in the style to which it has become accustomed.
Russian business always comes up with the cash in election years. Bankrolling a campaign is a solid investment for big firms -- one that more than pays for itself in tax breaks, government contracts and high-level access. Small-time businessmen often choose to become deputies themselves. In addition to the prestige, a seat in parliament provides immunity from prosecution. An executive caught looting his company can't be thrown in jail. But he can be whacked. History has shown that contract killers have little respect for deputies' immunity.
Barring some unforeseen development, the upcoming elections will be none too dramatic, although a measure of intrigue remains, particularly surrounding the prospects of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party. The party's leaders and patrons expect it to win an overwhelming majority of the seats in the next Duma, and the lion's share of the money that comes with them. This expectation is entirely in line with Russia's new state ideology, and with current thinking in the Kremlin. The simplest approach would be to appoint all Duma deputies from a list drawn up by the presidential administration. The problem is that the electorate has other plans. "Administrative resources" can generate 5 to 6 percent more votes for Kremlin-picked candidates, translating into 30 to 40 more deputies from single-mandate districts. But to turn this slender advantage into a landslide victory, the Kremlin would have to install Merlin atop the Central Election Commission.
While the presidential administration ponders how to divide up the Duma, a sizeable chunk of the electorate is preparing to vote for the Communists, just as they always have. The number of voters who cast their votes for the Communists hovers somewhere between 35 and 40 percent of the total, regardless of the party's poll numbers. The Kremlin can't afford to give that many seats to an opposition (if only in name) party, but it hasn't yet figured out how to avert such an outcome. Gennady Zyuganov's party has been battered with scandals and intrigue aimed at splitting its ranks or installing new leadership. And these power plays have only increased as Russia's other political organizations have shown their total bankruptcy. None of this has anything to do with ideas and principles, of course. As the well-known journalist Anatoly Baranov put it, this is not a battle of titans, but a scuffle between very large insects -- interesting enough to watch, but you'd be hard pressed to sy! mpathize with any of the combatants.
While United Russia is divvying up seats it hasn't won yet, and the Communists are fighting for their political lives, the third main party of post-Soviet Russia, Yabloko, is pondering the age-old question: "To be or not to be?"
By some miracle the party has consistently cleared the 5-percent barrier required for party-list representation in the Duma. Yabloko's leaders, always scurrying to prevent the party's total collapse, are seized by dark thoughts every four years. Will the voters turn out to support them? Will other, bigger parties attempt to snatch their seats? You'd have a tough time stealing 10 to 15 percent of the Communists' votes, but making off with 2 to 3 percent of Yabloko's votes would be like taking candy from a baby. Yabloko is in no position to defend itself; in fact, it can't even arrange for enough polling-station observers to keep track of stolen votes on election day.
The big question in the 2003 election resembles a math problem for
8-year-olds: How many votes must be stolen from Yabloko during the counting process to satisfy United Russia without offending the Communists?
Boris Kagarlitsky is director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.