Democracy’s summertime adventures in Russia

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With Russian politics being more vibrant than it usually is over summer, the close of the Duma’s spring session passed almost unnoticed – the “liveliest session” in the Duma’s history, as the Vremya Novostei newspaper put it.

Vremya Novostei points out that since the start of this year the Duma has passed 130 laws, established five working groups for implementing instructions in President Putin’s address to parliament, and survived one fist-fight, one hunger strike, and one split. In short, says Vremya Novostei, the spring session proved to be “colorful, spectacular, and far from routine.”

Gennady Gudkov, leader of the People’s Party and one of the Duma’ most eloquent members, observed Gazeta that the political situation was very unstable: “First we tighten the screws, and then we release the pressure; first we create ‘wings’ for the pro-government party, and then we give them up.” On the whole, there was enough trouble.

There were difficulties too, Mr. Gudkov concedes. The biggest ones were connected with enactment of the monetization bill: “It happened so not because the bill is bad, but because the government scuttled it, just as we had expected.”

Dmitri Rogozin in an interview to Gazeta said that his faction performed fruitfully “despite provocations of the United Russia and inside splitters.” The pride of the Motherland Party’s leader is justified: “We submitted over 30 bills to the Duma, which primarily concerned extension of democratic liberties.” In Mr. Rogozin’s words, the most important one is the draft law which imposes responsibility on the government, which will have “to resign if it fails to ensure a rise in living standards.”

Oleg Kovalyuov, chair of the Duma Procedures Committee and a member of the United Russia faction, parried the reproaches of Mr. Rogozin. Yet he also admitted that the session was successful “despite negative episodes such as the split in the Motherland faction and the brawl between parliamentarians in the assembly hall.

Kovalyov, like Rogozin, also thought it necessary to reproach the Cabinet: “Relations between the Duma and the government have ceased to be idyllic. The parliamentary majority has taken a hard-line stance towards the government and does not trust the government’s words.”

Only the Communists feel frustrated. Sergei Reshuotsky, coordinator of the Communist faction, observed that he “had never before felt so frustrated about a session’s results” since there has been a tendency towards “restriction of the Duma’s independence and its submission to the executive authority.”

Mr. Reshuotsky stressed that the passed bills were adopted “in hustle and under cover of pseudo-criticism of the bills,” while the rejected bills are normally turned down by the United Russia faction, which does not wish to see the point of proposals basing its judgments on the membership of a bill’s author in the opposing factioon.”

A rather negative assessment of the Duma’s performance was made by independent parliamentarian Vladimir Ryzhkov.

“During those six months the Duma was actually doing two things: licking wounds and continuing to quietly eliminate democracy and political rights of citizens.”

By “licking wounds” Mr. Ryzhkov means measures to mitigate the consequences of the monetization bill: “The Kremlin and the Duma, led by United Russia, were terribly frightened by mass protests in January-February and were forced to bring up the question of dismissing the government, vote it down and then think how to amend the situation.”

In the end, the fire was “put out by the cash”: “They took petrodollars and began to spend them, which resulted in huge inflation – above 7.5% in five months.” Therefore it transpired that the original cost of the monetization reform had been understated twice, but the government bore no responsibility for that. “The Duma performed as faultily as it did in the previous year.”

At the same time Mr. Ryzhkov stressed that the lower house apparently succeeded in “stifling the democracy.” Amendments to the electoral legislation – raising the threshold to 7%, actual consent to abolish the “against all candidates” voting option, ban on political blocs and others – are evidence that “fair elections are impossible in Russia.”

Apart from tighter election regulations, the financial aspect obviously remains a concern for every party except the pro-government party.

The new law on electing Duma members raises state funding to political parties that got over 3% of the vote in 2003 from 0.50 to 5 rubles per vote. The United Russia party will therefore be entitled to 115 million rubles, the Communist Party (CPRF) to 38 million rubles, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) to 35 million rubles, and the Motherland (Rodina) party to 27 million rubles a year, the newspaper Vedomosti says.

Judging by the data submitted to the Justice Ministry, United Russia spent 915 million rubles, the CPRF spent 73.7 million rubles, and the LDPR spent 91 million rubles in 2004.

Obviously, public funds will not suffice for the parties to exist. Unlike the United Russia, other parties may not count on sponsorship funds: “Every business owner fears the prospect of finding himself in Khodorkovsky’s shoes,” said Igor Bunin, head of the Political Techniques Center.

According to a senior LDPR official, at present businesses spend money only to maintain relations. In such circumstances the CPRF decided to benefit from personal contributions of its members. Shortly before the summer recess, Gennady Zyuganov told Interfax that if each member of the party donated 100 roubles once in three months, that would solve the problem of finance shortage in election campaigns.

According to the CPRF’s estimates, in 2003 the party spent some 30 million – 60 million roubles on the Duma election campaign, and if Zyuganov’s proposal is implemented, the CPRF, which has a membership of some 200,000, the party could raise around 80 million rubles.

Political analyst Alexei Kara-Murza considers Zyugnanov’s statement a kind of safety net in case he is accused of contacts with oligarchs. This is true because investments into the CPRF would evidently be quite safe for businesses, as the party is very likely to obtain “10% of the vote at the elections in 2007.” Nonetheless, the YUKOS case makes the CPRF leadership wary.

Motherland and Yabloko on their part declared that they do not count on the money of their members and supporters. Yevgenia Dillendorf, spokesperson for Grigory Yavlinsky, conceded that after “a long discussion” Yabloko’s management gave up the idea of membership dues in order not to “impose a burden on members for whom a few dozen roubles is a considerable sum.”

The situation when the opposition parties have in fact no sources of finance, Vedomosti described as “shortcomings of democracy.”

Parties’ chances to improve their financial standing by enrolling new members are zero at the moment, according to the chief of the VTsIOM analytical department. It turned out that citizens are ignoring political parties completely.

Public confidence in political parties is lower than ever, according to VTsIOM. Citizens can’t quite figure out what the parties actually do.

According to VTsIOM, the United Russia party is now over 20% ahead of its nearest rival, the Communist Party. Voter support for the democratic parties, Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, has halved over the past 18 months, during which time they have not been represented in parliament. None of the newer parties have a support rating in excess of the statistical error margin as yet.

Unfortunately, unification of all democratic forces proved too much for the 2008 Committee – on its basis there have been established at least five political parties instead of one, Nezavisimaya Gazeta observes. The newspaper refers to the Committee’s activist, journalist Yulia Latynina, who thinks that it was appearance of professional politicos in the organization that resulted in its decline and deterioration. “The best capable part of the 2008 Committee included either politicians who had not been involved in the process of unification before that (Kasparov and Ryzhkov) or journalists (Shenderovich, Parkhomenko, Ryklin). They saw clearly the pointlessness and futility of debates over who would manage subsidies from sponsors, who would talk to the Kremlin, or on whose basis the unification should take place,” Latynina said. “As more and more politicians were joining the 2008 Committee, it gradually lost floatation.”

The Free Choice 2008 Committee which objective was to united the democratic forces ahead of election campaigns seems to be about to drop out of politics, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

“The biggest mistake was to involve so many ‘used condoms,'” Ms Latynina said.

This view is shared by the Committee’s chairman Garry Kasparov, who according to Nezavisimaya Gazeta obviously “unlike Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, which that have been conducting talks about unification for a decade now, lacks political patience.” Kasparov said that it is obvious for him that “the process cannot be brought to its logical conclusion at this point because the involved parties are disinterested.”

“What is happening nowadays is but a PR screen aimed to hide from the public the fact that all politicians are promoting their own narrow interests,” Kasparov argued. In conclusion, the Committee’s chairman stressed that the talks have returned to the starting point of “reciprocal accusations on every point.”

Only Boris Nemtsov is trying to maintain optimism in his associates: “I am aware that the road to unification is very difficult. Moreover, I have a feeling that the 2007-2008 elections will see our complete disintegration, marginalization and great disappointment of our supporters. Still, we have to traverse it.”

Meanwhile, the number of those who are going to compete for power is growing. Some of them have problems neither with financing nor with the administrative resource exploitation.

Kommersant reports that Our Own, the pro-Kremlin youth movement, set up its summer camp on July 11 at Lake Seliger in the Tver region. Over the next two weeks, three thousand “commissars” of Our Own will be engaging in physical and ideological training for “combating Russia’s enemies” and “staff revolution.” The latter certainly demands great arrangements and even greater expenses.

“Everybody knows that the Kremlin supports Our Own, everybody knows that the president met with our commissars,” said Vasily Yakemenko, federal commissar of Our Own. “The Kremlin’s support allows us to hold talks with any business owners and ensure sponsorship from them.”

Moreover, Yakemenko stressed, “to refuse to finance our project would mean to be unpatriotic. That is why many offer their assistance, including those who reckon on our future support in a few years.”

This is what is going to happen in a few years: “By 2010, Our Own is expected to have 10,000 members, and by 2015 – 100,000 members.” As for “active supporters” of the movement, their number is supposed to be at least 300 000 people by 2007, according to Mr. Yakemenko.

The “federal commissar” conceded that at present Our Own faces “great resistance of local bureaucrats,” and therefore it needs the Kremlin’s support. “But if we continue growing for the next six months to one year at the present pace, the Kremlin and many others will come to depend on us.”

Many have already called the camp on Lake Seliger “a camp for storm-troopers,” Kommersant says. Mr. Yakemenko said that he does not approve of “such comparisons” – however, “if we consider the matter from the technical point of view, the Hitler Youth had effective summer camp programs. The Chinese Red Guards were fighting defeatist officials, and the Komsomol was a good starting ground for developing one’s career.”

Yet, Mr. Yakemenko stressed that “though we have these features too, this is the only thing that makes us similar, while there are big ideological differences.”

As for the ideology of Our Own, it is all very clear. Their leader observes that “should the orange revolution come to power, I would end up in a cell in the Hague next to Milosevic. But this only means that as long as I live in Russia, the orange revolution will never come to power.” To dispel any doubts, he added: “I am not going to leave Russia, anyway. This is what Mikhail Khodorkovsky and I have in common.”

The government is obviously afraid of the “orange scenario” of future developments, Alexei Makarkin, deputy general director of the Political Techniques Center, told Gazeta: “The active staff of Our Own is being trained for street fighting.”

The biggest danger that the “orange scenario” carries, in the Kremlin’s opinion, is ex prime minister Mikhail Kasianov – “Russia’s Victor Yushchenko,” a prospective runner for the 2008 elections, a politician with “a low rating but great potential.”

Kasianov is well-known to public and this is his advantage: “He was prime minister for a long time, and for four years frequently appeared on TV.”

Besides, the former prime minister did not venture to implement monetization of social benefits, and at present this is his “trump card,” as against the background of Fradkov’s government his premiership looks steady and moderate.

In addition to this, Kasianov has friendly relation with business-owners who were very scared by the YUKOS investigations.

Kasianov may also be supported by officials who are very perturbed by the administrative reform, redistribution of authorities between the federal center and regions, and the forthcoming local government reforms: “The arguments of officials are as follows. Today I am a director, and what I will be doing tomorrow is not clear. But when Kasianov was prime minister, everything was steady.”

Besides, in the West Kasianov enjoys the reputation of a tractable and predictable person: “He upholds the free market and democratic reforms.”

It is not surprising that charges issued by the Prosecutor General’s Office against Mikhail Kasianov at the request of Duma member Alexander Khinshtein – charges of illegally acquiring a state-owned country residence in Troitse-Lykovo – was met with firm belief that the matter is politically motivated.

Khinshtein chose a very strange topic exposing the fact that Kasianov has got a “nice country house in a picturesque place,” observes Olga Romanova from Vedomosti.

“Did anyone think that Kasianov, who is a clever man and who is in his best years, does not possess such a house?” the journalist wonders. If he did not, “it would be possible to doubt the commercial and mental abilities of the ex prime minister and promising politician. Dmitri Rogozin from Nezavisimaya Gazeta even supposed that the scandal around Kasianov is an “extra element in the liberals’ campaign for promoting their candidate.”

Only very short-sighted representatives of the executive branch could decide to attack and prosecute Mikhail Kasianov who had revealed his ambitions for presidency. The row around the candidate may boost his rating, which Kasianov certainly needs.

Novaya Gazeta observes that when Kasianov promulgated his plans for the 2008 election he could not but foresee the Kremlin’s reaction: “He is quite sophisticated.”

Moreover, he knows a lot about the private life of many of the presidential administration officials as well as the president himself.

“Reasonably, when Kasianov announced his intention to participate in the election he already had a few cells in overseas banks which stored documents that might be a reason for a serious concern of the president and some key figures of his administration.”

Novaya Gazeta supposes that the nature of the charges brought against Kasianov proves that if the Kremlin brings more serious charges against him it would cause a great a turmoil.

As a matter of fact, Kasianov used to deal with “issues worth many billions, including foreign debts, government short-term bonds, fishery quotes… And now he is being prosecuted for owing a lot worth just some $100 million – $200 million.”

That is why, Novaya Gazeta concludes, “there are no far-reaching prospects for the lawsuit against Kasianov, and a large-scale anti-corruption investigation is, alas, impossible.”

But who knows, and may be prudent Kasianov will prefer the “suitcase – railway station – London” scenario (headline of an article in Novaya Gazeta) to participation in the presidential election race which is so undesirable for the Kremlin.

Anyway, the “managed democracy” in Russia has not been abolished so far, and management certainly presupposed the ability to predict the situation a few steps ahead.

Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration, was quoted as saying as he reported at a meeting of the general council of the Business Russia forum: “I am sure that Russian people are capable of living in a democracy, establishing it and enjoying its benefits. Yet there is probably a particular historical path. If you do not follow it, you will fail. We are not restraining it artificially, as many might think. We are simply afraid.” (Quoted in Novaya Gazeta.)

As they say, you never know what you can do until you try. According to Vladislav Surkov, “democracy does not mean simply establishing democratic institutions, but it needs to be cultivated in people.”

They say that the present Russian government is not good enough for the people. It is not truth. But it is not better than the people, and this really is a problem,” says Novoye Vremya.

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