Political institutions and their substitutes

All of Russia’s institutions have been weakened in recent years: parties, the parliament, the government, the media. All except the presidency itself, which has built up a powerful hierarchy of its own, and the security and law enforcement bloc, directly controlled by the president.

While this does not claim to be a comprehensive analysis of the place and role of political parties in Russia’s present-day political system, I should like to express a few thoughts regarding the parties themselves, the directions in which they are evolving, and the overall political design or construct of Russia’s political machine. This is particularly important now, with the next federal election cycle coming up, since the system will have to demonstrate that it’s able to reproduce itself, thus proving its right to exist. The impression is that unless some substantial structural changes are made – such as strengthening parties and relaxing what we regard as excessively tight control over elections – the task of self-reproduction is unachievable.

All institutions have been weakened in recent years – save for the presidency itself, which has built up a powerful hierarchy of its own, and the security and law enforcement bloc, directly controlled by the president. The government, headed by the prime minister, was never strong or independent; and now it doesn’t even look like a united team – only a collection of factions battling each other for power and property. The media, political parties, and the State Duma have weakened drastically, losing the remnants of their erstwhile independence. Regional leaders, the reformed Federation Council, and local government have grown much weaker. As the federal political elite has been consolidate, big business and the “oligarchs” have become less independent. The role played by elections has become markedly smaller.

The presidential envoys and their staff have played a substantial role in changing the overall political configuration; they have become an important element in the Russian regime’s new body, based on the presidency and the security and law enforcement agencies.

Let’s take a closer look at the “substitutes” – structures replacing the institutions that are being eliminated or weakened. The substitutes are intended to enable the state mechanism to function in these new conditions. The key feature of the substitutes is that although they sometimes act as full-fledged institutions, they don’t really have that status. Some aren’t mentioned in the Constitution or federal legislation at all (presidential envoys, for example); others are entirely dependent on the president.

The idiosyncrasy of Russia’s present-day political system has two aspects.

1. Institutions, while losing their role and content, aren’t being eliminated entirely; their content is vanishing, but the outward shell remains in place. They are turning into decorative elements, pseudo-institutions, pale shadows of themselves.

2. The substitutes never actually become institutions – they are not covered by legislation such as the Constitution and constitutional laws. They have no independent legitimacy. They are not established in order to gradually replace the institutions which are becoming ineffective; they are only substitutes, supplanting the institutions de facto, while de jure the democratic institutions linger on in a decorative role.

According to various estimates, the shadow economy accounts for 40-60% of the Russian economy. Similarly, we might say that Russia has shadow politics – and the substitutes are part of that.

Here is a parallel list of insitutions and the substitutes that take their place in present-day Russia. For the sake of clarity, we’ll restrict ourselves to the major bodies, omitting the important integrated institutions of elections and local government.

Institution: the State Duma. Substitutes: sector-specific presidential advisory councils; the Public Chamber.

Institution: the Federation Council. Substitutes: the State Council and its presidium (2000- ); the Council of Lawmakers (2001- ).

Institution: political parties. Substitutes: the political machines of state-owned corporations and regions.

Institution: independent media. Substitutes: as feedback channels, presidential envoy reception offices (2002- ); as a source of information, confidential opinion polls (2004- ); agency-specific information-gathering networks, complaints from citizens.

Institution: the Cabinet as the center of government. Substitutes: the presidential administration, the State Council presidium, the Security Council (2000-01), the Strategic Research Center (2000-02); the Cabinet as the body used for “lesser Security Council” meetings (2000- ); the National Projects Council.

Institution: federal and regional authorities. Substitutes: presidential envoys in federal districts; executive branch bodies.

Using substitutes in a political system always entails simplifying it and making it more primitive. Since substitutes supplant the functions of institutions rather than actual institutions – and any democratic institution, such as the parliament, may have many functions – one institution may be supplanted by a number of substitutes. However, some institutional functions which the Kremlin regards as unnecessary may end up not being performed at all.

The party system

Our political parties now resemble a computer carved out of wood. They might look exactly like the real thing on the outside, but they don’t actually work – because there’s nothing on the inside. Without separation of powers or an independent legislative branch, there cannot be any real parties – only mock-ups, which don’t really function and aren’t even meant to function. The Kremlin only needs these parties during elections, in order to ensure control over elected bodies at the federal, regional or local level.

It’s become commonplace to criticize parties for being “couch parties,” or “Garden Ring parties” – out of touch with Russia’s real problems, incapable of developing clear policies, led by ambitious demagogue politicians, incapable of working constructively for the public good, incapable of cooperating with each other, and so on. But the problem doesn’t lie in any particular parties or party leaders. The problem is that all the parties are bad, and that is due to the structure of the political system – in which all parties are allocated a purely decorative role.

United Russia, sometimes referred to as the “ruling party,” is no exception. Actually, it isn’t really a political party at all – just a kind of association for bureaucrats and state officials, often no more than a formality they use to retain their influence – just another reincarnation of the CPSU. After this virtual party won the Duma election of 2003, one option was to transform it into a real ruling party. If this had happened, United Russia’s leadership would have gradually become a decision-making center. The Kremlin considered this option, but didn’t go ahead with it; it seemed simpler and more efficient to make decisions in the Kremlin itself, without all these complications. As long as parties have no real powers (or responsibilities), and no real ability to influence decision-making, it’s naive to expect them to “mature.”

Getting back to United Russia, we should note that in a number of regions its situation is substantially different from what it is at the federal level. Although it’s still premature to call it a truly dominant party, the role and influence of some United Russia branches in the regions are growing substantially, as the personal power of regional leaders declines. In some cases United Russia is opposing regional leaders. Then again, there are also many cases where regional political machines simply adopt United Russia as a brand-name.

Ever since the latest amendments to the law on political parties, there is no longer any chance of parties remaining active, or any new parties emerging, contrary to the Kremlin’s will. With the ban on forming electoral blocs, and the new amendment that forbids members of one party to run for parliament as candidates for another party, the period of “let a hundred flowers bloom” has been replaced by a period of the Kremlin collecting all flowers into two bouquets. In 2006, 19 out of 35 parties negotiated the re-registration procedures successfully. By October 2006, a number of them had undergone mergers and takeovers: the Russian United Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs merged into United Russia; Motherland and the Russian Party of Pensioners merged with the Russian Party of Life to form a more complex formation called Just Russia: Motherland, Pensioners, Life. The revolutionary nature of these events has less to do with the political landscape becoming sparser, and more with the emergence of a second Kremlin party – a reserve party. The combined voter support of these three parties is comparable to United Russia’s, or even greater in some regions. More importantly, the Just Russia project, announced as “the relevant left,” has the Kremlin’s support – and once again, as in 1999, the regional political elites have a choice of parties.

Last year, as the next electoral cycle and a change of administration approached, the Kremlin set aside the older parties it had “house-trained” earlier: the Communist Party, the Union of Right Forces, Yabloko. Instead, it started dividing its own political projects into two piles. Is this a regrouping of forces in the lead-up to a decisive political clash betwen the Kremlin’s two major factions? Presumably, the new parties – created and entirely controlled by the Kremlin – are simply easier to deal with than any older projects started by someone else and headed by leaders who retain some ambitions of their own. The Kremlin uses the parties almost entirely to achieve its own objectives, including the objective of influencing citizens; the parties aren’t really a means of conveying the public’s wishes to the Kremlin. They are mostly election campaign projects. Tight control over parties is provided by strict financial control, along with much stricter legislation which entirely rules out the possibility of any political parties remaining active, let alone any new parties emerging, contrary to the Kremlin’s will.

The lack of funding sources not controlled by the Kremlin, along with the Kremlin’s solidarity and unity, is an important factor in the absence of political parties as an institution independent of the Kremlin.

However, although by late 2006 the field of party politics had been thoroughly cleared of all real political opposition, political competition has started arising again. According to the laws of social physics, when the Kremlin wins in one area it loses in another. This is demonstrated yet again by the results of stripping away all independence from the parties, bringing them entirely under control. Such parties are incapable of providing normal interaction between the authorities and citizens: yes, the Kremlin has acquired a lever, but it’s too heavy on the side of the authorities and too light on the side of citizens.

The political machines of state corporations and regions

Thus, we have few or no political parties in the full sense of the term. There are only some election campaign projects, used by the authorities to control elections and elected government bodies.

Methods of manipulating elections have changed substantially since the Yeltsin era. Firstly, local, regional, and federal authorities hardly ever compete with each other in manipulating elections. Secondly, soft positive discrimination (the authorities assisting their candidate) has been replaced by forceful negative discrimination: all parties regarded by the authorities as unsuitable are barred from elections, while the remaining parties engage in a contest where any outcome will be satisfactory for the authorities. The downside of this approach is that the authorities are breaking their own rules, undermining public interest in elections and confidence in elections as an institution.

But the functions of political parties aren’t confined to elections. They also include expressing and promoting the interests of major social groups; providing two-way communication between the authorities and citizens; shaping an agenda and developing solutions for the country’s problems, and mobilizing the public to implement them; reproducing the political elite, and so on.

Who is performing these functions? Regional and corporate political machines. In the former case, despite the Kremlin’s efforts, many of them remain in place; this is clearly evident from how the new system of appointing regional leaders works. If a regional leader is strong (firmly in control of the political machine he has established), he will be reappointed – with the Kremlin turning a blind eye to “incorrect” ideological preferences, former or even current statements, actions contary to the Kremlin’s will, or many transgressions against the law. This applies to Mintimer Shaimiyev, Murtaza Rakhimov, Aman Tuleyev, Yuri Luzhkov, and others. If a regional leader is weak – lacking a reliable, smoothly-functioning political machine, and incapable of ensuring the necessary election outcomes – he is likely to be replaced, probably by a representative of a state-owned corporation’s political machine.

In the absence of normal political parties, large state-owned corporations play the role of network structures providing communication between levels of government and the public, and representing the interests of political clans. Essentially, they act as quasi-parties. They have their own media facilities, think-tanks and consultancies. They are active political players: signing agreements with regional leaders, participating in election campaigns, and subsequently lobbying for their interests in the Duma and regional legislatures via the lawmakers connected to them.