#13 - JRL 7239
Russia and Eurasia Review
Volume 2, Issue 13
June 24, 2003
By Nikolai Petrov
Nikolai Petrov is head of the Center for Political Geographic Research and is a leading research associate with the Institute of Geography at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
December's elections to the Russian State Duma will be the first to be held under conditions of political stabilization, with ongoing federal reform, a considerably stronger center and a reinforced team supporting Vladimir Putin. They will seriously test the model of "managed democracy" that has come to be associated with President Putin, and will be a trial of strength for the "party of power" on the eve of Putin's election for a second term.
It has become fashionable recently for experts to speak of the predictability and dullness of the forthcoming Duma elections. But politics are unpredictable, even in a "managed democracy." Only two parties--the Communists (KPRF) and United Russia--are sure to clear the 5 percent threshold. All the others--Yabloko, the Union of Right Forces (SPS) and the Liberal Democrats (LDPR)--are hovering somewhere around that figure. So a vote swing of just a few percentage points could lead to disproportionate shifts in party representation in the Duma.
But the true source of unpredictability lies not in the opinions of voters, but in the "technical" aspect of the elections, which is not attracting much attention either from the public or from analysts. Russia is evolving from a democracy that has been managed haphazardly from various centers, into one that is managed in an organized way from a single source.
The various actors on the political stage are fighting for the best roles, or trying to think up ways of attracting more attention to themselves, while journalists track their fluctuating fortunes. Meanwhile, major "technical" work is going on behind the scenes. Its effect cannot yet be clearly seen, but the fragments visible during the recent regional elections allow us to make a provisional judgment.
The impending elections are affected by the Kremlin's concerted effort to centralize control of the nation's political system, combined with major changes in the rules of the game regarding the electoral process. These are: 1) the reformed electoral commissions; 2) the courts; 3) the law enforcement agencies; 4) the new system of presidential envoys; 5) the political offices open to the public that have been set up by the presidential envoys; and 6) the redistricting of electoral constituencies.
New electoral commissions are being created, and they are being brought under the close control of the Central Electoral Commission. The CEC has become a "ministry for elections," in which utterly obscure rules of the game are devised, fought over, and ultimately implemented. Imprecise legislation makes it possible--and completely legal--to bar almost any candidate (for overspending, violation of election campaign rules and so on), and to punish any media outlet. The new law allows the CEC to second two members to each regional electoral commission, one of whom serves as the chairman. It also has the right to disband any electoral commission in the regions, a right that it exercised in Krasnoyarsk in January.
As far back as the State Duma elections of 1999, and in subsequent regional elections, the outcome of the voting has been increasingly determined not at the polling stations but in electoral commission and court sessions. In the last gubernatorial elections in Kursk, Saratov and Rostov Oblasts, for example, the removal of the strongest contenders ensured that there was no real contest. In Kursk, the oblast court disqualified the incumbent governor, who was inconveniencing the Kremlin. In the other two cases, it saw off strong opposition candidates who were proving a nuisance to the incumbent governors. Now that the Center has to a major extent assumed full control of the courts and the public prosecutors, the practice of using the courts for electoral engineering purposes is becoming much more widespread.
THE LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES
The law enforcement agencies are a most important piece of the electoral puzzle. They are often used both to apply pressure on candidates and to gather and disseminate information that may influence the course of the elections. What is special about the current elections is that the regional law enforcers are much more loyal to Moscow than before, both institutionally and in personal terms. In Putin's three years in power, two-thirds of the generals serving in regional branches of the Interior Ministry (MVD) and Federal Security Service (FSB) have been replaced. Moreover, Boris Gryzlov, the head of the MVD, is also head of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, and regional law enforcers are rushing to join United Russia's "non-party" supporters' clubs. A recent reshuffling of law enforcement agencies (especially of the tax police) is designed to increase control over them by Putin's comrades-in-arms, with a particular view to monitoring financial flows, such as political sponsorship.
Coordination of government agencies, and the monitoring of their activities on behalf of the president, has been greatly strengthened by Putin's creation in 2000 of seven new federal districts. Each is headed by a presidential envoy, with a federal inspector reporting to the envoys from each oblast and republic. There has been an unsuccessful effort to organize Duma deputy factions by federal district: This is likely to be put in place after the next Duma election, beginning with the deputies from United Russia. The party lists of candidates from United Russia, the Liberal Democrats and perhaps others will be organized by federal districts.
PUBLIC POLITICAL OFFICES
Political offices open to the public have been set up in all regions of the country by the presidential envoys, where members of the public can drop in with complaints about government bureaucracies and requests for information. They provide an ideal infrastructure for gathering information on the situation in the provinces, mounting propaganda campaigns, fundraising, and working with the provincial elites behind the backs of the governors. It was recently announced that the running of these offices, which number almost 3,000 and employ a staff of close to 100,000, is to be handed over to local branches of United Russia.
There is to be a redistribution of Duma seats and a redrawing of constituency boundaries in line with data from the October 2002 census, the findings of which differed markedly from existing records. The constituencies were last reorganized in 1995, when at least one-quarter of districts saw substantial change. Redistricting was planned for the last elections, in 1999, but there was not enough time to carry it out. A significant proportion of the constituency boundaries can be expected to be redrawn this time, which will simplify the process of removing certain deputies.
The first three of these six elements played an important role in earlier elections. But the balance of political forces was more complex at that time. With the current re-centralization of political power, the combination of these six factors may have an explosive effect, and result in a qualitative shift in the character of the political regime.
"Administrative resources" had been used in previous elections, but will now be consolidated under tighter Kremlin control. Collectively, the electoral commissions, law enforcement agencies and courts are strengthening both the strategic and the operational control exerted by the federal powers, and are capable of having a dramatic effect on every electoral outcome. The main changes will be felt not in the party list race but in the single mandate constituencies, which fill half the seats in the Duma. Here one can expect the Kremlin to make strong gains at the expense of the opposition. A swing of seats into Kremlin hands will not necessarily mean the physical replacement of one deputy by another--there will be places where incumbents are reelected but on new terms and with new loyalties.
Almost half of the single mandate deputies already take a pro-Kremlin line, and the future Duma may see substantially more of them in that category. So the Kremlin's declared objective of securing a controlling bloc in the Duma does not appear to be unreasonably ambitious, despite United Russia's likely weak showing against the Communist Party in the party-list race. And this puts in a new light the president's intention, as stated in his latest address, to form a government built on a majority in the Duma.
The question is why, in such a situation, does the Kremlin seem so worried about the outcome of the impending elections?
First, elections do still require an electorate. The main problem with "managed democracy" is ensuring that the masses turn out to vote. How do you outsmart the voters, convincing them that their vote counts, when in fact it does not? You need to create the simulation of a contest, with clashes between various political forces, in a manner reminiscent of American professional wrestling. Hence the need to concoct party manifestos, with United Russia blatantly plagiarizing the platforms of the SPS and the Communists in the name of "constructive centrism." This season's newest fashion is party debating clubs. Yabloko, United Russia and the People's Party have all jumped on this bandwagon, and the Communists have announced their intention to follow suit. Sessions are usually held in expensive hotels at inconvenient times (during the day so that they can be covered on the evening's TV news), with leading expert intellectuals and deputies taking part. Another sign of the desperate desire to simulate political debate is the vociferous criticism of the government by United Russia and other pro-government (!!) parties.
By law the Duma elections require a 25 per cent turnout, without which they have to be repeated. It is unlikely that turnout would fall below that threshold, but the higher the turnout, the more convincing the appearance of political participation and hence the legitimacy of the "duly elected" institutions of government. Moreover, the lower the turnout the more likely it is that opposition groups will do well, to the disadvantage of the official powers. Hence the decision by the pro-Kremlin majority in the Duma to bring forward election day from December 14 to December 7. This will avoid holding the vote on the third non-working day in a row (since the 12th is Constitution Day).
The second factor to bear in mind is that neither the Kremlin nor its sponsors are monolithic entities. Bitter feuds within the elite will inevitably add further intrigue to the elections. All sorts of alliances of Kremlin groupings, oligarchs and regional leaders are emerging and constantly changing. There is a new rule allowing a mere twelve deputies in the Duma to form a registered faction (the previous minimum was 35 for a "group," and only parties were allowed to form "factions"). This means we can expect a "Ukrainization" of the new Russian parliament, where any serious financial-industrial grouping will be able to have its own camp.
The elections are being stripped of ideology--in content, though not in form. The independence of parties is growing ever weaker, but their insignia and brands are still everywhere to be seen. This is essential to giving the elections their democratic decorum, but the parties will reveal their true independence--or lack thereof--in their behavior in parliament after the elections.
The recent mayoral elections in Norilsk raise the question of the limits to managed democracy. Despite lavish "administrative resources" and the best efforts of business and the authorities, 30 percent of the votes were cast "against all" candidates. This is an option left over from Soviet times, but it is finding a new role in democratic Russia.
The established model of parliamentary elections reminds one of American professional wrestling: the triumph of form over substance. But the genre has exhausted its utility, and is in need of a change. Money and administrative power are not enough to create a workable model of managed democracy. New skills and political techniques are needed, and the Kremlin is short of both. Hence the most intriguing question of the elections: Can the Kremlin's design for managed democracy be made to fit a society that has matured so quickly in the past few years?