THE DUMA DROOLS

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An interview with independent member of parliament Vladimir Ryzhkov

Independent Duma member Vladimir Ryzhkov maintains that the month of May brought two significant events in the lower house of parliament: debates marking Victory Day, and the rapid continuation of efforts to dismantle Russia’s few remaining democratic institutions.


Independent Duma member Vladimir Ryzhkov maintains that the month of May brought two significant events in the lower house of parliament: debates marking Victory Day, and the rapid continuation of efforts to dismantle Russia’s few remaining democratic institutions.

Vladimir Ryzhkov: The Duma continued its battle against democracy, delivering another blow to democratic liberties. I’m talking about a bill submitted by the president and passed in the first reading: it “corrects” 13 laws that are in some way related to elections. This bill can be described as “political monetization,” containing a whole range of undemocratic innovations. Parties will be forbidden to unite in electoral blocs for regional elections; the threshold for representation in regional parliaments could be raised to 7% of the vote; besides, candidates and parties will have to choose between collecting signatures for registration or lodging a bond. In the past, they could do both. For example, in the last Duma elections, I lodged a bond before starting to collect signatures; once the signatures had been collected, checked, and validated, my bond was refunded. Now candidates won’t be allowed to do this any more. Given that the permissible percentage of dubious signatures is being cut to a fifth of its previous level – from 25% to 5% – this gives state officials a tool for disqualifying any “unsuitable” party or candidate.

Question: What do you think of the move to introduce a common voting day throughout all the regions?

Vladimir Ryzhkov: It’s a controversial innovation. Firstly, it’s a loophole for extending terms in office. For example, the Moscow municipal legislature is currently looking to extend its own term, which expires in December 2005, until the common voting day in March 2006. I think there will be other examples of this being done. Secondly, citizens might be put off by the fact of several elections taking place on the same day. I’ll give an example: last year in Altai, seven elections were held on the same day! People were confused by the plethora of candidates on ballot papers, and voted against all candidates as a sign of protest.

In short, this legislation continues the undemocratic trends that began with the abolition of direct elections for regional leaders.

Question: A new version of the law on Duma elections was also passed in its final reading in May.

Vladimir Ryzhkov: Yes – the saga of that bill’s passage came to an end in May. This legislation destroys independent members of parliament as a class. From now on, all Duma members will be elected via party lists. The threshold for Duma representation has been raised to 7% of the vote: this indicates that the Kremlin is striving to keep the opposition out of parliament permanently. This new law could lead to the Duma containing only two factions! The current minimum is four. Having a two-faction Duma would amount to eliminating political pluralism – especially if one of those factions is United Russia, and the other is one of its satellite, such as the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR). Overall, this legislation is as undemocratic as it is unconstitutional. But the authorities have long been spitting on the Constitution, openly.

Question: While this presidential bill was being debated, you said it might be challenged in the Constitutional Court. Is that so?

Vladimir Ryzhkov: In principle, yes; but in reality, there is simply no one to appeal to the Constitutional Court. After all, who could do that? The regional leaders – but they’re appointees now, so they won’t defy Moscow’s wishes. Regional legislatures – well, they obviously lack the spirit. The Federation Council – but as yet, it doesn’t seem like any of the senators are prepared to do it. Ninety Duma members would be enough to send an appeal to the Constitutional Court – but the opposition simply doesn’t control that many votes in the Duma these days. Regrettably.

Question: Central Election Commission Chairman Alexander Veshnyakov addressed the Duma on the topic of the presidential bill. He stated that these are the final, conclusive amendments to electoral legislation. Can that statement be believed?

Vladimir Ryzhkov: I find it hard to believe. The unfortunate experience of all countries that are failing to establish democracy – and Russia is now among them – indicates that regimes change the rules to suit themselves, and they do so continually. Over the past five years, Putin has completely changed all the rules of politics: abolishing elections for regional leaders, changing selection procedures for local government bodies, changing the Duma election system, changing selection procedures for Federation Council members. And I think the process of dismantling democratic institutions is set to continue.

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