The Next Stop Is Duma

(This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)

Will those who believe that the Dec. 4 Duma elections still matter please raise their hands? Well, not a big crowd. And no wonder: the announcement that Vladimir Putin is returning to the presidency next spring has consumed all the attention of the pundits and the general public. By resolving what has long been considered as the major intrigue of the upcoming electoral cycle, the announcement has brought a sense of finality to the discussion of the future power configuration in the Kremlin. With Putin and Medvedev preordained to become Russia’s next co-chiefs of the all-powerful executive branch, who’d care about the composition of an inferior legislative body whose only function, according to a widespread belief, is to stamp executive orders, a body which its own speaker defined as not a “place for political discussions?”

And yet, the Duma matters – and so does its election. The lower house of parliament traditionally plays an important role in drafting the state budget; in addition, it provides a convenient platform for the regions to plead their cases before federal government. This attracts to the Duma numerous lobbyists representing Russia’s special interests. Every region or large city along with every major corporation considers it a must to have their representatives in the Duma. Besides, a position of a Duma deputy carries with it some prestige — as well as parliamentary immunity, so many wealthy businesspeople seek Duma membership to elevate their public profile and to protect themselves from criminal prosecution. Parliamentarians actually fight for the opportunity to be elected in the next Duma, with the party allegiances often becoming a victim in these fights. Thus, having learned that he was excluded from the United Russia party’s electoral list for the upcoming election, high-ranked “edinoross” Sergei Shishkarev offered his legislative skills to the Communist Party. After careful consideration, the Communists turned down this generous offer.

Experts predict that the composition of the next Duma will follow a “3+2” formula. That means that only three political parties will overcome the 7% electoral threshold and form full-fledged Duma factions. In addition, two more parties will collect between 5% and 7% of the vote and, in accordance with a recent change to the electoral law, be allowed to occupy one or two Duma seats.

The Holy Trinity of the parties whose presence in the Duma is all but guaranteed is composed of United Russia, the Communist Party (KPRF) and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR). Understanding that their place in the Duma is assured – and being aware that they will not be allowed to have Duma factions whose size would threaten the domination of United Russia – KPRF and LDPR chose to conduct low-key election campaigns. The electoral programs composed by both parties represent a conventional blend of demands of lavish social spending with a mild criticism of United Russia — but not Putin personally. Neither program includes any bold or even original propositions, unless you count as one KPRF’s promise to create a “new union of fraternal nations” or LDPR’s desire to ban porn on the Internet. Looking forward to the election, KPRF is counting on the perennial loyalty of its core electorate and a solid network of regional party organizations, whereas LDPR, as usual, will benefit from entertaining TV appearances of its leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who, as all analysts agree, is in “excellent shape.”

Having expelled, in an intra-party putsch, its leader and the primary sponsor Mikhail Prokhorov, the Right Cause party has lost any chance of getting into the Duma. Yet, the party might still have a dog in the fight: the new leadership may hope that the removal of Prokhorov from active politics will be rewarded by their handlers in the presidential administration. The price would be the 3% of the vote, making the Right Cause eligible for the state financing for the next five years. It is unclear at this point, however, to which extent Andrei Dunayev & Co. are interested in running the election campaign at all; they seem to be more preoccupied with finding legal ways to keep the 800 million rubles (~$25-28 million) that Prokhorov contributed to the party coffers.

The election will be especially difficult for the Just Russia party. Following the departure of its leader Sergei Mironov from the helm of the Federation Council, Just Russia lost the administrative resource available to it in the past; defections of high-ranked party members and financial sponsors have further weakened the party. At certain point, it appeared that Just Russia was moving into opposition to the Kremlin. This hasn’t happened, though: the harsh criticism of United Russia was toned down, and plans to include a number of prominent opposition figures into Just Russia’s election list were scrapped. Apparently, the “Prokhorov affair” has taught everyone, including Mironov, a valuable lesson: fighting with the presidential administration will only make things worse. It is highly unlikely that Just Russia will be able to preserve its status of a bona fide Duma party. However, winning one or two Duma seats – one for Mironov and the other for his top lieutenant Nikolai Levichev — is well within the party’s reach.

The unexpected winner of the upcoming election may turn out to be the moribund Yabloko party. As loud whispers of the Moscow rumor mill have it, the presidential administration didn’t completely abandon its idea of having a liberal party in the next Duma. But now, having terminated the “Prokhorov project,” the Kremlin turned its eye on Yabloko and decided to appoint its leader, well respected economist Grigoriy Yavlinsky, designated Duma liberal. Yabloko may therefore join Just Russia in becoming the second “mini-party” in the Duma, according to the “3+2” formula.

The biggest remaining unknown is whether United Russia will be able to win the constitutional majority in the 6th Duma. In the past, reaching this position was aided by two main factors: Putin’s personal popularity and United Russia’s formidable election campaign machine. This year, two additional “aces” were thrown in: the All-Russia Popular Front and Medvedev's leading United Russia’s electoral list. How the two will play out, isn’t completely clear: the buzz surrounding the creation of the Popular Front has so far failed to increase United Russia’s falling ratings, and at least for now, Medvedev’s name replacing Putin’s on the ballot is only confusing campaign managers.

Recent developments present a challenge for Medvedev himself. One the one hand, as president, he promised to ensure clean and honest election. On the other, his very future in politics now depends on the result that United Russia achieves in December. How this obvious conflict of interests between Medvedev the lame-duck president and Medvedev the aspiring party leader will be reconciled remains to be seen.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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19 Responses to The Next Stop Is Duma

  1. Russian politics are a very dreary and stagnant swamp. In the Presidential race Russians get to choose between the Establishment choice and — surprise!! — Zyuganov, Zhirinovskiy and — maybe — Yavlinskiy. The same choice they’ve had in every election.
    Duma same same.
    The thing I’ll be watching is turnout. About the only option for the disaffected is to stay at home.

  2. Just counted them up.
    5 Presidential elections and
    Zhirinovskiy has run 4 times, Zyuganov 3 times, Yavlinskiy 2 times, Yeltsin 2 times, Putin 2 times and Medvedev once.
    Will Putin eventually overcome Zhirinovskiy’s head start in candidacies? What excitement!
    I find it weirdly interesting that the Establishment changes its candidates more often than the others.

  3. Eugene Ivanov says:

    I don’t think that turnout will be significantly lower this year. Russians who don’t care about whom they vote for will vote en mass — as usual. And so-called disaffected may vote for “anyone but UR” as Navalny is trying to persuade them doing.
    As for the presidential candidates, Putin will eventually overcome Zyuganov for sure, but, hopefully, not Zhirinovsky:)

  4. On the matter of apathy and knee jerk voting, a recent primary was held in NY for the Working Family and Independent political parties. Voter turnout among people registered in these two parties was well under 50% in many and perhaps all of the involved voting districts. In at least one Republican stronghold, what typically happened was that registered Republicans showed up to vote, outnumbering those who were registered to vote in that particular primary, unlike the Republicans who came to vote. On this last instance, I’m reminded of a Little League experience, when a third team mistakenly showed up for a game between two other scheduled teams.
    Regarding Russia, it has been said that many there have become wary of revolutionary changes on account of some relatively recent historical experiences in that country. The current global economic situation further encourages a yearning for relative stability, with a chance of gradual progress, over something that either isn’t as well known and/or arguably more risky.

  5. Eugene says:

    Thanks Mike,
    I agree that the issue of “stability” is often being invoked when Putin’s decision to return to the presidency is discussed. However, the growing number of Russians begin, in my view, to recognize that stability has nothing to do with the lack of change. So the very understanding of what stability is is very different now than it was at the beginning of 2000s. And I strongly suspect that Putin is missing this shift in public sentiments.

  6. Mark says:

    I honestly don’t know why the Kremlin suppresses the candidacy of other parties – at least for the presidency – because there’s no (present) danger they’d win. The liberals don’t swing enough clout, despite the bleating of their western backers and advertisers, and those same backers would really have to ask themselves what the hell they were thinking if their constant interference and agitation in Russian politics caused the Communist Party to return to power (then again, they did think it was an excellent idea to enable an Islamic fundamentalist government in Libya after a decade of spitting on the ground every time someone mentioned the words, “Islamic fundamentalist”, so one never knows). However, if suppression were not present the other candidates would no longer have the straw of Kremlin interference to cling to, and would have to face the fact they lost because they were not wanted. Mind you, then western complaint would likely shift to “having other parties is not democracy. It’s only democracy if the western-preferred candidate wins”. I’m told a new law that greatly simplifies new party registration is in the works, so the west might want to look at adopting the latter complaint.
    As far as the Duma goes, the west (chiefly the USA, with the greatest proportion of holier-than-thou democracy advocates) ought to take a look around at the glass walls before hurling anything hard. Regional politics in the U.S. are the subject of constant fierce jockeying for party advantage using gerrymandering, redistricting and misleading advertising in order to herd the voters in the desired direction or otherwise maximize advantage. Not one of them would pass the smell test if initiated by the ruling party of Russia.

  7. Eugene, granted a growing number of Russians seem to feel that way, based on what has been commented on elsewhere and from what I’ve personally experienced. At the same time, there’s still that matter I brought up at this thread.
    Mark, as a “whataboutism” ****, I recall a fairly major American third party presidential candidate (probably Perot, perhaps Nader or both – would’ve to check for sure) who was kept out of a major televised debate. At the time, it was noted that a panel of Repubs and Dems decided who was fit for such an appearance. In the US, one typically, if not exclusively (would’ve to check for sure) has to be either a registered Dem or Repub to be officially part of the vote monitoring process. This last point definitely relates to at least a good portion of the US (Like I said, maybe the whole country).
    You’re aware of the image of a one party system masked as two.
    Like it or not, the primary political options in Russia suggest that for now, the current status quo reflects the closest to the will of the people.

  8. Eugene says:

    I don’t understand, either, why the Kremlin is afraid of more-less open presidential contest: its candidate will win no matter what. Perhaps, they are so obsessed with “high ratings” that anything less than a crushing victory in the first round of voting looks threatening to them.
    That said, Putin has a simple opportunity to kind of offset the negative perception of his decision: he can order completely “free” election. That is, let all the candidate register, give all of them equal opportunity to campaign — that is, exactly what is stipulated by the law — and, most importantly, take part in TV debates with Zhirinovsky, Zyuganov and Yavlinsky. I’ll be eagely watching for any signs of that — or lack thereof.
    As far as party politics goes, sure, there is no single dirty trick invented that hasn’t been or isn’t being used by political parties in the U.S. There is one important difference from Russia, though. No matter how Karl Rove was influential in GWB’s White House, he couldn’t tell democrats in, say, MA what to do and whom promote as congressional candidates. Compare that with powers possessed by Surkov, whose position isn’t even mentioned in the Consitution.
    Best Regards,

  9. Mark says:

    Karl Rove was tremendously influential in regional (state) politics and practiced more or less all his life for exerting a personal influence on politics both local and national.
    See “1995-1996”, when Rove arranged (allegedly, ha, ha) for the printing of anonymous fliers attacking his own candidate. It was blamed on his opponent, and Rove’s candidate won. Later, in the match-up between Bush and McCain in McCain’s home state, Rove started a whisper campaign which suggested McCain’s wife was a drug addict and that their adopted Bangladeshi girl was a black child McCain had fathered out of wedlock. Of course, McCain lost.
    All that time, Rove’s position was not only not mentioned in the Constitution, it did not exist for purposes of government. Later, of course, he was a special advisor to the President and held several other responsibilities within the government.
    So, although he could not directly order members of another party to vote this way or that on this issue or that, there are many ways to destroy a candidate and influence who is placed in what position. It was often not necessary for Rove to order politicians of other parties – he simply had them removed and replaced with party loyalists.
    I doubt Surkov’s power is anything approaching what Rove’s was, and Rove was the master of dirty tricks. If he were Russian and advocating for the Kremlin, the west would have turned itself inside out by now in its rage and anguish.

  10. Someone relatively well known in Russia watching DC think tank circles informally said that Putin’s return to the presidency would be problematical in terms of tackling corruption. Interesting how some establishment necoon to neolib leaning wonkdom spin “corruption” in the former Communist bloc. The matter of 1990s era corruption in Russia is pretty well known. Among Putin’s critics, there’s acknowledgement of so-so manner on the part of some of those deemed as noticeable political options to United Russia (UR) – in addition to Putin remaining the most popular politician in Russia.
    A younger person getting the UR presidential nod wouldn’t likely stop the negativity. There would be continued second guessing of who was behind the scene, along with legitimate criticism of not going with the more popular choice for presidential candidate.
    On the emphasis of corruption in the former Communist bloc, consider the great presence of Western leaning neocon to neolib leaning NGOs in Serbia and their influence in Serb media and body politic. Some kinds of manipulative influences are more okay than others. Hence, the comparative lack of English language mass media concern over the situation in Serbia versus what’s claimed of other countries like Ukraine.
    This commentary and follow-up discussion serves as a good indicator of what is and isn’t stressed on such matter:
    The ramifications of top heavy spin at the leading Western media/political/academic organs can greatly nurture a given perception in a way that’s not always so accurate.

  11. Mark says:

    A younger and fresher face as a United Russia candidate probably would not stop the negativity, true – the west wants a progressive liberal who will impose sweeping privatizations in the driver’s seat, and any leader of UR would be unsatisfactory. I’m reminded also of Eugene’s earlier contention that any initiative that is not successful overnight in achieving its stated objective is deemed a failure by Russia’s critics.
    It makes me laugh, the way the same critics continue to shriek that Putin is duping the voters. Give the voters a little credit, why don’t you, boys? What would you say to a western leader who cut the poverty rate in half and steadily raised the working wage as well as pensions? Hello, re-election? And yet the electorate’s unwillingness to take a flyer on an untried liberal who offers no plan for moving Russia forward and whose rhetoric is demonstrably full of hysterical exaggerations is testimony to its fear of Putin – obviously, they must keep electing him because they’re scared not to, and because the Kremlin is rigging the vote. If only they would listen to the west, they could have an economy just like the west’s.
    You mean an economy dominated by a few incredibly rich people who are a law unto themselves and have the government in their pockets? Where the owner of the company doesn’t actually do anything, but gets paid about a hundred times more than the salarymen? Say….Russia almost had one like that, back in the 90’s.
    Thanks, but no, thanks.

  12. Eugene Ivanov says:

    At the risk of sounding banal, the major source of corruption in Russia is huge — and still increasing — role of the state in EVERYTHING. For as long as the number of state bureaucrats keeps doubling roughly every 10 years, it’s difficult to expect any serious improvements in this area.
    We’ll have to see how the next Putin administration deals with the issue. So far, nothing that Putin said publicly shows that he’s overly concerned.

  13. Eugene Ivanov says:

    I don’t think — and I presume that Mike isn’t advocating this, either — that the choice that Russia is facing is between Putin and “untried liberal.” I even agree that in a match between Putin and ANY liberal Putin will win hands down.
    Yet, this isn’t a valid reason for him to stay in power indefinitely.

  14. Eugene, Mark & Co:
    I don’t think that “Putvedev” are so out of touch, thereby giving hope that an imperfect gradual process of reform can continue with highs and lows along the way.
    There’s corruption that’s more in line with the legitimate interests of a country, versus another kind. Russia remains vulnerable, with Serbia serving as an example of what happens when neocon to neolib leaning Western NGOs establish a firm presence.
    The mass media coverage has influence over a good number of the perceptions. When compared to some other venues, The National Interest does a pretty good job at presenting different views to an issue.
    Touching on the subject matters of this thread, here’s an example:
    Of these two articles, the first linked piece appears to have received greater play elsewhere, including InoSMI and Chrystia Freeland.
    The second linked piece has in what IMO appears like an establishment double standard – perhaps used for the purpose of trying to get acceptance within the influential circle of slanted against Russia and Putin commentary:
    “No one is under the illusion that Putin is a very nice man or that he isn’t in charge of a pretty nasty regime.”
    Keep in mind that from a distance, some seemingly very nice folks have later on come across as finks. There’ve been reverse circumstances as well. From a distance, some don’t find John McCain to be “very nice.” Yet, I don’t offhand think that such would be likely said of McCain among others – even in the relatively open-minded National Interest. IMO, it’s a bit of an inaccurate oversimplification to collectively refer to the Russian government as a “nasty regime.”
    This panel has some diverse views:
    From that panel, this view is half assed:
    “Secondly, because Putin’s instincts are in fact less pro-Western than Medvedev’s. He is more given to making demagogic comments against the West and half-believing them.”
    Recall a Bush-Putin press conference in St. Petersburg, when the two were in the position of president. It was Bush who provoked Putin to calmly hope that Russia wouldn’t become like Iraq. The BBC’s Matt Frei spun that exchange as Putin being the instigator, which wasn’t the case. If you’re going to dish out a hit along the lines of what Bush said, it’s not out of line to get hit back. Likewise, I recall a CSPAN aired Carnegie panel with “soft on Russia” Strobe Talbott joining Zbigniew Brzezinski in belittling Russia before Sergey Rogov and Vladimir Lukin – the latter looked like they were invited to appear as punching bags. Another instance saw Michael McFaul talking about how many Russians like to tweak the US. McFaul has signed AEI/Freedom House influenced open letters unlike similar parallel activity from the DC area based Edward Lozansky.
    Referring back to how some types of National Interest commentary get promoted over others:
    What the likes of Abramowitz and RFE/RL downplay:

  15. Mark says:

    A popular and oft-heard argument is, “if the system only works with Putin at the top, then it doesn’t work” (not specifically directed at Patrick, I’ve heard it a lot). Really? Well, if the system works with any Joe that wanders in off the street, do you need a system at all? Where is this notion of cookie-cutter government coming from, considering it has no equal in reality except perhaps for tribal monarchies where governance is passed from father to son? Might just as well have self-government on a family level, if the country could be run on a international level by a fisherman or a stereo repairman or an arborist or an everyman. Is that, truly, the system democracy is working toward?
    If it isn’t, and you need the best and most-experienced person at the helm, then that person is Putin. Like the popular modern proverb, “Jump, and the net will appear” says, a new leader will appear when Putin is truly no longer right for the job. All this hand-wringing about him remaining in power forever is just meaningless speculation, since very few had any kind of clue what he was going to do this time. Did all those analysts just suddenly find the secret to reading Putin’s mind?
    Right now, a few things have changed in Russia, and a few things will never change. One of those is the western perception of Russia as Other, a nation that must be subjugated and brought to heel, the realization of which goal is worth whatever it costs short of open war. It almost happened under Yeltsin – could Medvedev have dragged it back from the abyss? I very much doubt it. Is it solid enough now that a weak leader could come to power, and the nation would be in no danger of going down that road again? I very much doubt that, too.
    If it became clear and believable that the west genuinely wanted a respectful and unleveraged partnership with Russia, absent power games and trickery for advantage, I believe liberal democracy in Russia would be unstoppable.

  16. Eugene says:

    A simple question: How do you know that Putin is “the best and most-experienced person at the helm?”

  17. The Western mindset is typically influenced on the notion that democracies with high standards of living should see a political change at the top every four to ten years. Well, Russia isn’t there yet – at least not at this point.
    There appears to be a universal acknowledegment that Putin is the most popular political figure in Russia. As Eugene notes, there’re nevertheless a good number of Russians who’ve reservations about the status quo in their country. This situation has an arguably positive aspect to it – having to do with Russians at large not being so content and a government that isn’t brutally steam rolling discontent, as has been evident in some other past and present instances – the latter pertaining to other countries. Boring as this might be, a gradual and problematical evolution process in Russia’s political and economic development is under way – as opposed to takes like this:

  18. Make that:
    “Boring as this might be, a gradual and problematical evolution process in Russia’s political and economic development is arguably under way – as opposed to takes like this:…”
    Leaving the benefit of doubt, while recognizing that the future isn’t etched in stone.

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