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Friday, 6 March 2009

Successes of a Managed Democracy

Artwork: Konstantin Latyshev "GDP doubled"
Below are two articles that were published over the past fortnight, providing quite contradictory evaluations of the current political and economic situation in Russia today. The first is an editorial published in this week’s edition of “Expert”, a political economic magazine sympathetic to the Kremlin. It expresses the official line concerning events of Medvedev’s first year as President. The second article, also an editorial, was published a fortnight ago in “Nezavisimaia Gazeta” and casts any evaluation of Putin’s first year as Prime Minister in a rather different light.


- Expert -
A Test of Stability

When Dmitri Medvedev won the presidential election on the 2nd March 2008, no one would have guessed how difficult his presidential term was to become. It looked like Medvedev would slowly yet surely continue the excellent developments initiated by Vladimir Putin, and set about fine-tuning those spheres, where noticeable results might have for whatever reason not been achieved.

In a pre-election speech in Krasnoyarsk, Dmitri Medvedev outlined some of his priorities: a significant degree of independence of the judicial system; completion of changes to administrative regulations; handing over certain government functions to the private sector. The main assertion of his speech sounded almost like an aphorism: “Freedom is better than non-freedom.” The plan for the economy was to lessen the tax burden and place the emphasis on “building an independent, powerful, yet open financial system.”

Life, however, made a few amendments of its own. Medvedev did not get an easy ride and he, just like Putin before him, had to first win a war in the Caucasus. The peace-enforcement mission in Georgia showed that Medvedev was a tough politician, capable of making difficult decisions, whilst the Medvedev-Sarkozy agreement demonstrated his ability to succeed in rather precise diplomatic manoeuvres.

It was an unpleasant surprise for Moscow’s Western partners when Russia recognised the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Yet this was absolutely necessary in order to remove the threat to the republics of another attempt to end the dispute by force; an attempt that Tbilisi deemed inevitable after having lost the first war in August. The recognition of independence showed that Moscow is capable not only of reacting on the actions of its adversaries, but also of playing a deterring role. The Kremlin’s next step was to make yet another proposition to the US, EU and NATO about starting work on a new system of security for Europe, which would also take into account Russia’s interests. It is indeed rather showing that after the war our Western colleagues turned out to be much more susceptible to Moscow’s initiatives.

The ensuing economic crisis turned out to be an even bigger problem. A drop in the price of raw-material exports and a drain on capital subjected the Russian economy to a great shock. The rouble had to be devalued by almost a third, and cash reserves dropped by 36% (216 billion dollars). The events showed that the president was entirely right in his intentions to develop the country’s financial system, but that the crisis would make realising such plans significantly more difficult.

Political reforms were of utmost importance during Medvedev’s first year as president. The initiative to extend the presidential term to 6 years and the term for Duma deputies to 5 years was the proposition that attracted the most attention within society. However, under the current arrangement of the political system extending the terms would not have brought about any large changes, although it would have had a significant stabilising effect. Perhaps up until just a few months ago it seemed that there was even too much stability in Russia, so much, in fact, that reforms were unnecessary. However, as recent events have shown, such a backup plan would not have been for nothing.

The most significant changes with regards to the development of democratic procedures are those made to the appointment of regional governors (now only parties that have won in the regional elections will be allowed to present candidates), and also the changes to the procedure of forming the Federative Council (members will be chosen from elected deputies of the regional legislative assemblies). Additionally, moves have been made to encourage involvement of smaller parties in parliamentary affairs – those who did not obtain the minimum amount of votes, but received between 5 and 7 percent will now be represented. All in all, these steps should facilitate the development of a party system – all within the course that has been set out to make the transition towards a proportional election system.

Finally, we must also recognise the successful Medvedev – Putin duumvirate. The numerous speculations on the supposed division between the two leaders have remained for the time being just that – speculation. It is obvious, that however politically different Putin and Medvedev may be - they are two different people, and this will always result in differences in their views and approaches. But the differences are not that great.

Playing on disagreements between the president and prime minister it is a game that bureaucratic clans like to play; clans that see the existence of two decision-making centres as giving them the opportunity of attaining their own egoistic goals. And it is this game that during the global economic crisis Russia’s foes abroad would also very much like to play.

- Nezavisimaia Gazeta -
The limits of the usefulness of “managed democracy”

Legislators are scared of asking the executive inconvenient questions

The state Duma (lower house of parliament) took three weeks to mull over the first report appraising the government under the leadership of Vladimir Putin’s “Edinaia Rossiia” (United Russia). On the 30th January an evaluation report undertaken by the ministerial cabinet and carried out as part of a presidential initiative was presented to the Duma by first deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov. The result of the long reflection by parliamentarians on the content of this report was a ten page resolution.

The idea was that the state Duma would give a much needed evaluation of the anti-crisis policies of the government. There would be the opportunity to ask as many questions as needed during the meeting with the cabinet ministers. Then the Duma would take the report to bits and examine the Igor Shuvalov’s answers. This would be followed by an appraisal of the effectiveness with which measures that had been undertaken by the government. The plan was to then name those deemed guilty for the failure of any of the initiatives, whilst assigning certain figures the task of carrying out any urgent measures necessary to put the system to right.

However, the deputies did not set about asking difficult questions. The resolution that ensued confirmed the position of the parliamentary majority (United Russia): not one mistake committed by the ministerial cabinet was noted. Deputies got around the trickiest bit in their relations with the government with amazing simplicity. In order to answer the question “who’s guilty?”, whilst at the same time taking their own leader out of the equation, they thought up complex turns of phrase, with the only thing eventually criticised being the wholly abstract “insufficiently high level of discipline in many federal organs of executive power, resulting in bogging down of the timescale of carrying out the President and Prime Minister’s orders”.

And that was the end of the critical section of the Duma’s resolution. What followed were a series of requests made to the executive. Among them is the wholly astonishing remark expressing the need to organise and set up a government programme to encourage the unemployed to undertake work in the social sphere. That is, instead of demanding the government (and themselves for that matter) why on earth, a full half year into the crisis, such programmes do not already exist, deputies preferred to simply meekly express the desire of creating them. They did not even dare to mention the timeframe or name those who would be involved in their implementation.

It seems the deputies’ attitude can be summed up by the age-old saying “good Tsar, bad boyars”. It’s true, that there are now in fact two Tsars, but this is not important for state Duma deputies. It is much more important that the party leader receives the same respect as the president. However, the situation is not quite as amusing as it may seem.

Firstly, such a process devalues the very idea of an evaluation – what was the point of going to such trouble to produce a report just to end up making some insignificant suggestions to some insignificant people? Secondly, this trivialises the workings of the Duma. Tax-payers provide 5.5 billion roubles a year to keep the lower house of parliament running in the hope that its deputies will stand up for their interests, regardless of who they have to confront. Meanwhile, the majority of representatives are worried about only one thing - how to find sufficiently pleasant and inoffensive turns of phrase to describe the difficult relationship between the legislative and executive.

The problem is not just the declarational character of the Russian parliament. The problem is the removal from the political arena of one of the most important mechanisms of democratic control over the executive. It is necessary to have a real division of power not only on the surface, but in reality too. It has a practical use – improving the country’s anti-crisis programmes.

When times are tough, the natural limitations of a regime that calls itself “managed democracy” become plain to see. Sooner or later however the danger will arise that there will be no-one in this “democracy” left to govern.

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