Will Russia Have Competitive Politics?

Russia Legislature AdjourningIn his video blog address last week President Dmitry Medvedev called for more competition in Russian politics to combat "stagnation." He emphasized that without competition and a real chance to win or lose power, political parties tend to atrophy and slide into irrelevance. Is this plan likely to work as intended? Will new political parties appear in Russia in the immediate future? Will political zombies like the Communist Party or the Liberal Democratic Party or Just Russia leave the scene? Or does Medvedev's plan mask with flowery rhetoric an intellectual void where there should be a strategy to deal with the nation's problems?

He specifically pointed to signs of emerging "zastoi," or stagnation, in Russia's political system, and described the small steps meant to stimulate political competition and level the playing field for Russian political parties that have been implemented on his watch, like passing legislative amendments that would allow small parties to win two seats in the Duma even if they fail to clear the seven percent electoral threshold (they still have to get at least five percent of the vote to gain the seats).

He called for new, unspecified measures to increase competition both on the regional and the federal levels in the run up to the Duma elections of 2011. Putin and Medvedev seem to be experimenting with gradually opening up the Russian political system to create new momentum for modernizing the country.

Medvedev echoed Vladislav Surkov, his deputy chief of staff who a week before had told a bizarre audience of American student leaders that Russia is making the transition to a Western-style democracy, albeit slowly and gradually. Surkov speculated that United Russia may lose its dominant position and another party will win power, but probably not at the next Duma elections, where the United Russia's victory would be "crucial for modernizations' success."

The key operating words here are "gradually and slowly." The intention is to avoid repeating the mistakes of the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who quickly lost control, and the country, after the introduction of genuinely competitive politics. Medvedev put heavy emphasis on the "take it slow approach."

Is this plan likely to work as intended? Will this new opening broaden the political base of the tandemocracy while incorporating many of its current critics who now feel ignored or rejected? Would this increase the internal social mobility within the Russian ruling class, reducing the risk of an elite mutiny? Isn't this not unlike what the Communist Party of China is doing by stimulating controlled internal competition for top leadership?

Patrick Armstrong, Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada:

There is little political variety in Russia today. Vladimir Zhirinovsky is content with the status quo: given the proportional voting system he can count on a comfortable living forever. The Communist Party has a certain base, and it too can count on reliably winning seats. The "liberals" spend their time quarrelling, each leader discovering reasons why he cannot cooperate with anyone else and must form his own groupuscule. Anyone who thinks that this reality is the result of fiddling by the Kremlin should stock up on aluminum foil.

The dominant party in Russia today is United Russia. Since the Boris Yeltsin days the people in power have sought to create a support party. In Yeltsin's time, where this was done inefficiently and at the last moment, we lived through Russia's Choice and Our Home Russia, neither of which had much longevity. In 2000, when it was uncertain who would come out on top, two pedestal parties appeared, but, after Putin's victory, they smoothly amalgamated into United Russia. Perhaps the enduring political image of these times was the Moscow election billboard showing then-Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and the slogan "Together with the President." Whoever he might be. Thus, United Russia is a "pedestal party" whose purpose is to support the statue of power. Putin described its purpose succinctly in 2008: "It is far more important that I, as prime minister and leader of the party, have the possibility of relying on the United Russia majority in the State Duma. This enables me to implement long-term decisions and promptly respond to problems as they arise." But the weakness of it as a political party is that it exists to support the team and it attracts those who want to be close to power: it has no other raison d'être.

More recently the Kremlin created a second pedestal party ­ Just Russia ­ and, while it exists today, it is not clear that there can be two pedestal parties with different flavor. The development of a more varied political landscape is also affected by the reality that Russians generally approve of the behavior and policies of their leaders, and because they agree with what the statue is doing, they vote for its pedestal.

While Medvedev is right in calling for more variety, past experience suggests that his call will not change anything. It must come from the bottom and that we have not seen so far.There is, however, one thing that he could usefully do and that is to lower the threshold that a party must cross to get into the Duma. At present it is set at seven percent, which is probably too high. But, even so, on the 2007 election figures, the barrier would have had to have been set at two percent before the next party (and not an especially "liberal" one) got in. The only way that lowering the barrier would make any difference would be if the "liberals" could unite and then cooperate and share the seven to ten percent support that they probably have. But there are no signs of that happening. Indeed, Garry Kasparov criticized the latest attempt to form a coalition, which, of course, doesn't include him.

Therefore, the Russian political landscape will look much the same for several more election cycles.

Alexandre Strokanov, Professor of History, Director of Institute of Russian Language, History and Culture, Lyndon State College, Lyndonville, VT:

I am really tired of repeating the same thing for the last two years, that there is no split and there will never be a split between the partners in the "tandem," and please, stop waiting for it.

What Medvedev said in his blog was quite well known and discussed by many objective commentators multiple times in Russia and outside of the country. The recognition of the lack of political competition in Russia became commonplace a long time ago, or at least since the electoral cycle of 2003 to 2004.

However, I would like to notice that "lack of political competition" and "zastoi" or stagnation are not the same thing, although they might be connected and related to each other. China has very little political competition outside of the Communist Party, but I doubt that somebody will define China as a stagnating country. Stagnation comes when a country's leadership is hesitating, indecisive and delays making unpopular but important decisions. For example, we have an obvious "zastoi" in what seems to be such a small matter ­ the construction of a federal highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg. A few months ago Medvedev postponed the decision on the route of this highway, paralyzing its construction. It was done through very liberally and democratically sounding explanations and it turned into a new "zastoi" and new tragedies on the old road a few days ago, when weather, as it is often in Russia, was not very kind to drivers. Such examples may be brought in sufficient numbers and on much lager scale than the story of this road. I decided to use it only because it is very evident and it is still remembered by many people in Russia.

Now back to the political competition. There are two aspects. One is political competition within the parties for leadership positions. In other words, how well existing parties encourage and allow young, talented individuals with new ideas and energy to find their way to the top of political life. The Communist Party, in particular, performed this role in an excellent way in the 1930s and 1950s, and completely failed in the later decades, allowing Leonid Brezhnev's gerontocracy to develop. Today, in contemporary Russia, it is obvious that all existing political parties perform this role very badly. It is enough to look at the leadership that is not changing for decades in the Communist Party and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), despite the failing performances of these parties in elections and their clearly diminishing base of support. If Gennady Zyuganov, in particular, becomes more of an obstacle for the communists, who still have potential, it is not completely clear that the LDPR can even exist without its founder and unchangeable leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky. But if this tendency is going to continue both of these parties will disappear from the scene together with their leaders.

Just Russia and United Russia are different stories. One is the party of bureaucracy that is already in power. Another is a weak copy of the first, created by the same master. But can someone name any bright young political leader or any interesting idea or project on the country's scale that originated within these two parties? I honestly doubt it. That is why the idea of competition should be applied first of all to the inner life of these parties, and they must do it for the sake of their own existence in the future if they really wish to have a future. The example of China and the ability of the Chinese communists to develop competition within the party and avoid the monopolization of power by one individual should certainly be studied and used by the Russian elite.

Should we expect the birth of new political parties? I will say that is unlikely. I do not see a leader, an ideology or a social group that could produce such a result soon. Nobody in Russia really cares about or needs a new party. It might be still possible, however, to make better the ones that already exist.

About fair competition among those four that are present today in the State Duma ­ it is hard to know how sincere Medvedev was when he called for stimulating such competition. And it would be really great if his words were followed with concrete actions, and if in a new round of elections the Kremlin wouldn't judge the efficiency of a governor by the percentage won by United Russia in his region. But at this point, I think we may only dream about it.

Vlad Ivanenko, Ph.D., economist, Ottawa:

Before addressing the question I checked the Internet to verify that I understand the term "competitive politics." According to the Web, the word seems to mean a hypothetical situation where voters have a choice among several candidates and credible means to affect their chances to be elected. While the Russian political system does not fit this description, one should admit that a static snapshot of its state does not capture the underlying dynamics. In my opinion there are two underwater currents that push the country in opposite directions.The first current starts from the office of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who keeps watching the political structure he helped to erect after coming to power in 2000. In my opinion the introduction of Putin's "power vertical" was move relative to the situation of anarchy and social chaos that consumed Russia in 1990s. I considered the containment of economic freedoms for entrepreneurs and the lack of freedom of choice in regional elections to be a smaller evil given the predatory nature of Russian capitalism and the monopolization of the local political scene. At the same time, I expected that as Russia becomes richer, the development of the middle class would increase public demand for what has been referred to above as "competitive politics." And this demand appears to form the second current that president Medvedev may be trying to harness.

Historically, Medvedev has not shown himself to be an impatient person. Even now he seems to be content following in the footsteps of his mighty predecessor. However, his actions reveal that he is capable of making his way, as the ignominious dismissal of formerly powerful Moscow mayor Luzhkov can attest. What he does not do is pretend that civil society is already present in the country. He allows the system built by Putin to continue to operate until it comes under public pressure. Then Medvedev interferes, graciously allowing the involved officials and their public opponents to search for common ground under his patronage. That was the way he approached the conflict around the Khimki Forest and conflicts that citizens have with law-enforcement agencies (in Kushchevskaya, etc).

A big unknown in this game is how Putin will respond to this successive encroachment on his political heritage. Before September 2007 I thought that despite his strong and authoritative style, Putin possessed personal integrity that would prevent him from making illogical moves. I still continue to believe that this assessment is right, and that he will leave politics after 2012. However, given his famous secretiveness, one can only wonder if Putin today is still the same person he was before 2008.

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, Inc., San Francisco, CA:

The subject of competitive politics in a republic is universal and spans all epochs and locales since the time of Classical Antiquity. Aristotle observed that a very small percentage of citizens regularly engaged in politics. And Aristotle was the tutor of Alexander of Macedonia.

Political stagnation in democratic societies is a very important and also a very vast topic. A book would be required to properly address the question. Stagnation of political activity is a particular problem of every democratic system, not only Russia's. There have been many attempts in many democratic societies to avoid or to cure political stagnation. None succeeded fully. The underlying reason is that citizens are simply not interested in politics; they have other life priorities. Political intellectuals and professional politicians who are eager for "competitive politics" are small minorities in their societies ­ granting political authority to the minorities who promote "political competitiveness" would violate the fundamental principle of any democracy: the rule of the majority. Such a step would be self-defeating.

It is plausible that president Medvedev, in his concern about political stagnation, was visualizing the Communist Party of the Soviet Union "zastoy" years. He should be aware that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was not a standard political party of the type currently present in Russia.

Today Russia's legislature has four political parties, of which one (the communists) is as radical an opponent of the party in power as one can imagine. And this party gathers as much as 26 percent of the votes in some districts.

In the United States (a country still very much a political ideal for many Russian intellectuals) a voter turnout of 40 percent in presidential elections (once every four years!) is considered high; voter turnouts in mid-term elections of 30 percent or even 25 percent are "normal." A large-scale third party just cannot seem to form and the U.S. Congress has only two political parties (Russia at least has four). Congressional tenures of 20 years are frequent; 30, 40 or even 50 years are also observed. Political stagnation and citizen apathy are structural throughout the country and society.

Or perhaps Medvedev would like to see the kind of political competition observed in Israel's Knesset, where a single deputy can derail the formation of a government and block the national legislative process?

Building a truly dynamic and robust political process in any country is achieved through the development and maintenance of working elective institutions "from the bottom up." Russia had such a process before 1917 ­ it was derived from self-government traditions going back to the earliest medieval times of Russia. It was the elective farmer self-rule in a "volost," the elective authorities of Cossack "stanitsas," the district and province "zemstvos," the elective city councils, the trial juries. All these institutions were abolished by the Soviets. Decades later they are being slowly rebuilt ­ and run into problems like those of the Krasnodar town of Kushchevskaya, where a mass killing recently occurred and a criminal group controlling an entire district was uncovered. This organized criminal group placed its members in elective offices for district government. Much like in the infamous town of Cicero, Illinois, in the 1920s.

It is naïve to expect that a democratic society can magically appear anywhere through the application of a formula from political science. There are no panaceas, no magic wands, no shortcuts. Political stability, progress and patient, humanistic, steady social work over generations are the answer. And even then one can imagine that the majority of Russian citizens will opt out of political engagement. Such is human nature, and the profound flaw of democratic governance.

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