An interview with independent Duma member Vladimir Ryzhkov

Independent Duma member Vladimir Ryzhkov analyzes the results of the parliament’s spring session: the new definition of extremism, amendments to electoral legislation, and how the Duma’s parties are preparing for the next elections.

With a sense of having done their duty, Duma members have departed for their two-month summer recess. Independent Duma member Vladimir Ryzhkov analyzes the results of the parliament’s spring session.

Question: The spring session of parliament featured the war on terrorism and extremism. It’s a good cause, but how accurate was the targeting?

Vladimir Ryzhkov: Unfortunately, instead of terrorists and extremists, the Kremlin’s political opponents became the targets. The main problem is that the laws passed during the spring session interpret “extremism” very broadly and vaguely. For example, criticism of state officials is defined as extremism, alongside ethnic intolerance. Under the circumstances, any district court can decide that any citizen who calls the mayor a thief is an extremist. In the meantime, there have been at least 20 hate crime murders in Russia since the start of 2006. That is extremism. And the laws being passed by the Duma won’t help to fight it.

Question: Why aren’t the authorities doing anything about “street extremism”?

Vladimir Ryzhkov: Because the authorities don’t regard extremism as dangerous for themselves. What they see as dangerous are signs of democracy. In other countries, it’s common practice to draw a distinction between the concept of extremism and the concept of radicalism. People who hold radical views and express them openly, but don’t act upon them, are not considered to be breaking the law. And there’s another definition of extremism: using democratic methods to dismantle democracy. Going by that definition, our greatest extremists are in the Kremlin. These people came to power with the aid of democratic mechanisms, but now they’re fighting those who maintain that the constitutional rights of citizens must be observed. These statements might get me into trouble under the new legislation, but I take responsibility for my words.

Question: The spring session also featured amendments to electoral legislation.

Vladimir Ryzhkov: Yes, the legislation is almost completely ready for the next parliamentary and presidential elections. In federal and regional elections alike, parties are no longer allowed to form blocs. A very strict new regulation is that a member of one party cannot be on another party’s list of candidates. This also eliminates informal blocs. Any candidate suspected of extremism (using the new broad definition) may be denied registration or disqualified. Early voting will be reintroduced, making Belarus-style elections possible: around 40% of voters in the last Belarusian election voted early, for Lukashenko. In short, these changes have created truly limitless opportunities for election fraud.

Question: Central Electoral Commission Chairman Alexander Veshnyakov has requested the United Russia party to stop rewriting electoral laws. Why do you think Veshnyakov has made this request?

Vladimir Ryzhkov: Some time ago, I attended an international conference organized by the Independent Elections Institute a Russian non-governmental organization uniting academics and specialists in public law – author’s note. The experts concluded that Russia’s electoral legislation has become extreme enough to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the next president and parliament. These laws do not comply with the international human rights conventions which Russia has ratified. Under the circumstances, the question of whether the elections will be honest doesn’t even arise. All this is so blatant that it’s even produced what I’d call a panic reaction from Mr. Veshnyakov. Then again, he was the one who opened this Pandora’s box several years ago.

Question: President Putin’s annual addresses to parliament serve as guidelines for lawmakers. What kind of results can we expect this year?

Vladimir Ryzhkov: I was disappointed to see that in this year’s address, the president didn’t analyze progress on achieving the objectives he set in previous addresses. Last year he spoke of fighting bureaucracy. But the number of public servants in Russia increased by over 100,000 in 2005 alone. The president spoke of fighting corruption – and Russia has dropped a further 30 points on an international corruption ranking. That is revealing. This year, Putin spoke of financial support for Russian families and increasing defense spending. But I don’t think we’ll see any radical changes. Spending on the Armed Forces in their current form is ineffective. And the money allocated for solving the demographic problem will be successfully distributed by the Duma, but it’s hardly likely to increase the number of happy families in Russia.

Question: The fourth-convocation Duma has passed the halfway mark of its term. What impact are the approaching elections having on the situation in parliament?

Vladimir Ryzhkov: All of the parties currently in parliament are trying to reach agreement with the Kremlin on terms for their participation in the next elections. As far as I know, every member of the United Russia faction is trying to secure guarantees of being on the party’s candidate list. All of them are being given some sort of promises, in order to keep them from getting nervous and disrupting the situation within the faction. The negotiation methods of other parties can be traced by observing the Motherland (Rodina) clones: there are two Motherland factions in the Duma, but both are loyal to the Kremlin. It should be acknowledged that the Kremlin is satisfied with the Duma’s present configuration, so it will make every effort to retain a “tame” Duma in the next elections.