Demise of Democracy

Fred Weir

The people of Beslan read lists of those killed in the hostage crisis.

Russia’s demo­c­ra­t­ic win­dow, nev­er pried open very wide fol­low­ing the Sovi­et Union’s demise, is slam­ming shut.

Cit­ing a sum­mer wave of ter­ror­ist attacks that killed 430 peo­ple, Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin last month ordered sweep­ing changes to the country’s polit­i­cal sys­tem that will effec­tive­ly abol­ish region­al guber­na­to­r­i­al elec­tions, sharply reduce the space for inde­pen­dent pol­i­tics and accel­er­ate the pro-Krem­lin Unit­ed Rus­sia Party’s merg­er with the state bureau­cra­cy to cre­ate a sin­gle par­ty-state behe­moth rem­i­nis­cent of the for­mer Com­mu­nist Par­ty of the Sovi­et Union. After these changes I am in a state of shock,” says Yevge­ny Yasin, a for­mer Russ­ian Eco­nom­ics Min­is­ter, now head of research at the High­er School of Eco­nom­ics in Moscow. This is direct­ed against the democ­ra­ti­za­tion of the coun­try and can only lead to an author­i­tar­i­an régime.”

Boris Yeltsin destroyed Russia’s first freely elect­ed par­lia­ment in a vio­lent con­fronta­tion 11 years ago and used his vic­to­ry to write a new con­sti­tu­tion that grant­ed the lion’s share of pow­er to the Krem­lin while reduc­ing the leg­is­la­ture to lit­tle more than orna­men­tal sta­tus. Since com­ing to pow­er about 5 years ago, Putin has fur­ther shrunk the role of elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives, reim­posed state con­trol over much of the media, cracked down on polit­i­cal­ly active non­govern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions (NGOs) and beefed-up secu­ri­ty ser­vices. Each turn of the screw has been ratio­nal­ized by increas­ing­ly severe ter­ror­ist attacks, from a wave of still-unex­plained apart­ment bomb­ings in 1999, to the seizure of 800 hostages in a Moscow the­ater two years ago, to the hor­rif­ic siege of a North Cau­ca­sus school last month that killed 330 peo­ple, most­ly chil­dren (see The Blood­i­est Chap­ter,” Octo­ber 11).

A raft of Krem­lin-authored bills are cur­rent­ly before the State Duma, where Unit­ed Russia’s two-thirds major­i­ty is expect­ed to deliv­er them with few amend­ments into law before year’s end. The most con­tro­ver­sial ones will claw back the right of Russia’s 89 regions to direct­ly elect their gov­er­nors — won after con­sid­er­able strug­gle a decade ago. Instead, the Krem­lin will pro­pose its own can­di­date to be endorsed” by each local legislature. 

If region­al law­mak­ers should reject the president’s nom­i­nee, the draft law empow­ers the Krem­lin to dis­solve the unco­op­er­a­tive leg­is­la­ture and appoint an inter­im gov­er­nor” enti­tled to serve for five years. Putin argues the mea­sures are need­ed to restore cen­tral author­i­ty and curb abus­es by gov­er­nors, some of whom have been in thrall to local oli­garchs or crime boss­es. But crit­ics see the move as a cyn­i­cal pow­er grab. 

Putin wants to use this oppor­tu­ni­ty to destroy the last ves­tiges of Yeltsin-era democ­ra­cy,” says Alexan­der Golts, a nation­al secu­ri­ty expert with the week­ly Yezhenedel­ny Zhur­nal. Instead of attack­ing ter­ror­ists, he’s attack­ing our elec­toral system.”

Anoth­er draft law would trun­cate Russia’s mixed elec­toral process, under which half of the State Duma’s 450 seats were cho­sen pro­por­tion­al­ly through vot­ing for cen­tral­ly com­piled par­ty lists, and the oth­er half through first-past-the-post local con­stituen­cy races. Under the new sys­tem all deputies will be elect­ed from par­ty lists, a change that will crush region­al inde­pen­dents and strength­en the hand of big Moscow-based par­ties, espe­cial­ly the state-backed Unit­ed Russia.

Putin [says he] wants to cre­ate an Amer­i­can-style two par­ty sys­tem, which would increase sta­bil­i­ty in a huge and volatile coun­try like Rus­sia,” says Sergei Strokan, a polit­i­cal expert who writes for the lib­er­al dai­ly Kom­m­er­sant. But the prob­lem is that Rus­sia lacks any devel­oped, inde­pen­dent polit­i­cal par­ties. The state already dom­i­nates the polit­i­cal field, and there­fore these mea­sures could just end up enhanc­ing the bureaucracy.” 

Anoth­er, less-noticed bill would lift the Yeltsin-era ban on senior civ­il ser­vants join­ing a polit­i­cal par­ty. That can only ben­e­fit the Kremlin’s crea­ture, Unit­ed Rus­sia, which has bur­geoned to 700,000 mem­bers in the past year — about twice the size of its near­est con­ceiv­able rival, Russia’s post-Sovi­et Com­mu­nist Par­ty. Near­ly half of all region­al gov­er­nors, eager to cur­ry favor with the Krem­lin, have joined Unit­ed Rus­sia, most in the past month. 

As soon as bureau­crats see that a tight­ly cen­tral­ized pow­er sys­tem is return­ing into force in Rus­sia, there is no doubt they will rush to join the par­ty of pow­er,” says Sergei Kol­makov, vice pres­i­dent of the inde­pen­dent Foun­da­tion for the Devel­op­ment of Par­lia­men­tarism in Moscow. When the bureau­crat­ic chain-of-com­mand becomes con­sol­i­dat­ed into a sin­gle par­ty, that par­ty will dom­i­nate the state and the nation. Peo­ple from all sec­tions of the elite will also want to join, to get clos­er to the sources of power.”

The pub­lic cul­ture of fear and sus­pi­cion that marked the last century’s Stal­in­ist exper­i­ment in cen­tral state-build­ing also is creep­ing back. In our besieged coun­try there has emerged a fifth col­umn of left and right rad­i­cals,” said Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the Krem­lin admin­is­tra­tion, in a recent inter­view with the dai­ly Kom­so­mol­skaya Prav­da, in which he ham­mered at ene­mies” inside and out­side the coun­try. False lib­er­als and real fas­cists have more and more in com­mon, the same for­eign spon­sors, the same hatred toward Putin’s Rus­sia, as they say, but in fact toward Rus­sia as such.”

Fred Weir is a Moscow cor­re­spon­dent for In These Times and reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to the Chris­t­ian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor, the Lon­don Inde­pen­dent, Cana­di­an Press and the South Chi­na Morn­ing Post. He is the co-author of Rev­o­lu­tion from Above: The Demise of the Sovi­et System.
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