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Analysis & Opinion
22.09.09 Mimicking Democracy
By Dmitry Babich

The Russian president Dmitry Medvedev’s interview to CNN provided one more clue to the most intriguing puzzle in Russian politics in the last two years – to what extent will the Russian president follow through with his pronounced strategy of democratizing the Russian society? In the previous two weeks, Medvedev made a myriad of reassuring statements, promising a bigger role for Russia’s eternally fledgling political parties, more openness to international scrutiny of the country’s domestic developments and “a modern, effective justice system.”

The vigor with which the Russian president made these promises led observers to believe that he was not quite happy with the status quo, further fueling speculation of a rift between him and his Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. However, in all of his statements Medvedev insisted that “his” democratization will somehow be different from the democratic reforms of the early 1990s, and avoided direct criticism of Vladimir Putin’s eight-year-long presidential tenure. This strategy was evident in Medvedev’s weekend interview to CNN, where he answered questions from Newsweek’s Editor in Chief Fareed Zakaria.

In the interview, Medvedev indirectly hinted at his understanding of democracy. “I think the current idea of a political system, the current party system, the current system of putting governors in office are more democratic than the ones we had in the 1990s. Why? Because this system is more stable and provides better protection for the population’s interests,” Medvedev said in response to a question about Russia’s alleged regress on the path to democratic reforms.

Many sociologists note that Russians have a tendency to view their political system pragmatically. Instead of defending the abstract principles of freedom and pluralism, Russians prefer to judge the political system by the effect it has on the local economy, the security situation, the social sphere, etc. If the results are good, Russians tend to reconcile themselves with authoritarian individuals in power and with certain undemocratic methods of governing.

Until 2004, when Vladimir Putin suggested that governors be chosen on the president’s suggestion by a secret vote of the regional legislature, governors in Russia were elected by direct popular vote. The president’s special powers, such as the right to remove a governor without the appropriate approval of the local legislature, were justified by the need to protect the unity of the country in lieu of the increasing terrorist threat (changes were voted into law by the Duma deputies who were still under the impression of a terrorist attack against a school in North Ossetia). Under Medvedev, who came to power in 2008, this system was slightly modernized, with the candidates for the governor position first being suggested for presidential approval by the strongest party in the local legislature.

There are mixed views on the effect of these innovations on Russia’s political system. “The situation varies from one region to another,” said Alexey Makarkin, the deputy general director of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies. “In several regions the new system of choosing governors facilitated the removal of some regional leaders who had occupied their positions for more than a decade and had become an impediment to development. In the Pskov region, for example, the new 34-year-old governor Andrei Turchak, who has been heading big companies since his twenties, is seen as an organizational genius. But there are also other examples, much more negative. So it is difficult to generalize.”

However, many observers don’t see how, given this system of de facto appointing the governors, Medvedev can keep his promise to make the political system in Russia “open, flexible and internally sophisticated.” “Sooner or later we shall return to a system of direct elections. There is simply no other way forward,” said Igor Bunin, the general director of the Center for Political Technologies.

Direct and fair elections are also necessary to fulfill the president’s program of establishing a system where “parliamentary parties periodically replace each other at the wheel of power.” This program, described in the president’s letter to the nation published on September 10, includes a promise to create a situation where “parties and their coalitions will form the federal and regional bodies of executive power (and not vice versa).” The phrase “and not vice versa,” even though the president put it in parentheses, reflects the reality in which a lot of political parties are viewed as the “projects” of powerful state officials, who use these “institutions of civil society” for their own needs.

In his interview to CNN Medvedev touched upon the main problem that hinders the development of a multiparty system in Russia. Abused first by a handful of powerful businessmen and later by state interference and cumbersome registration procedures, Russia’s party system failed to become a real value for the population, something worth fighting or working for. “People lack initiative, they don’t use their own political rights,” Medvedev complained in the interview. In his letter, he said that this year the country started “moving toward the creation of a new political system” and cited simplified procedures for party registration as an example. However, the much-touted reduction of the “membership minimum” from 50,000 members to 45,000 members has so far failed to revitalize the party scene. Some analysts think that simply giving more power to the parties may lead to the opposite of the desired result.

“The problem is that some powerful state officials may use the increased role of parties for the purpose of increasing their own power,” said Oleg Smolin, a member of the opposition communist faction in the State Duma. “Since the only way of getting to a local legislature is via political parties, they may use the party discipline as one more tool of control over deputies, making them toe the party line during votes. In my opinion, the main responsibility of a deputy is before a voter, and not before a party structure. Unfortunately, the people for whom democracy is not a value may turn even such a bright idea as the strengthening of parties into a parody of democracy.”
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