The U.S. mass media and most analysts would have led you to expect a bloody crackdown and trials and executions by commissar-chaired tribunals in reaction to such demonstrations. Instead, the Kremlin took the exact opposite tack, by strengthening the Perestroika 2.0’s liberalization policies and trying to meet the spirit if not the letter of the demands coming from the ‘white,’ ‘white ribbon,’ or ‘snow’ revolution and an increasingly disgruntled young and not so upwardly mobile Russian middle class, about which we have also written.
Just as during Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika 1.0, public opposition is forcing the regime to make concessions and reconfigure the political system, so too has the tandem’s previously slow and gradual Perestroika 2.0 provided space for mobilization and rising expectations for change. Although the regime has not quite yet met the rising white revolution halfway, it has taken steps to address the opposition’s complaints about the closed, soft authoritarian nature of Russia’s managed ‘democracy’ and the cheating and falsification that occurred on December 4th during the Duma election voting and counting processes.
More Political Reform
We have detailed over the last few years numerous reforms, including minor reforms of the political system during President Dmitrii Medvedev’s tenure in the Kremlin. In his last annual presidential address to the Federal Assembly on December 22nd, Medvedev accelerated the pace of political reform considerably in order to address the complaints aired at the December 10th mass demonstrations on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square and in some 50 other cities across Russia.
The Russian president proposed six major reforms of Russia’s political system and promised that corresponding bills would be submitted to the new Duma before he leaves office. Later reports surfaced that some bills would be submitted within days. The proposed changes would repeal more of the electoral legislation adopted during Putin’s two terms as president. He prefaced his proposal details by saying that he “hears those who speak about the need for change,” “understands them,” and supports giving “the legal possibility of participating in political life to all active citizens.”
Medvedev’s first proposal was the return to what he called “direct elections” of governors. However, upon closer inspection it appears that what he was proposing was the popular election of governors only after the candidates are either vetted by the president, as Putin proposed days prior, or perhaps nominated by parties that win enough votes to enter the particular region’s legislative assembly. The final construction appears to be the subject of some debate and/or the object of some political struggle within the corridors of power.
Second, Medvedev proposed repealing the requirement that political parties gather signatures to register for elections to the federal State Duma and regional legislative assemblies. There can be no recriminations here. This reform was praised by all Russian parties and analysts; it had been a key mechanism for preventing undesired parties from competing with the Kremlin’s party of power Yedinaya Rossiya (YeR) or United Russia.
Third, the parties’ load will be lightened by Medvedev’s removal of yet another key barrier to competition. Instead of being required to gather 45,000 signatures taken from at least 50 percent of Russia’s 83 regions to register a party, now only 500 signatures will be needed. This constitutes effectively the end of the requirement and its use as another mechanism by which the Kremlin had tilted the playing field in the YeR’s favor.
Fourth, Medvedev proposed instituting the proportional voting system in the 225 voting districts from which the Duma is elected. The wording of this proposal created understandable confusion. For some years Russia has used what is usually called a proportional representation (PR) system for electing the Duma’s 450 deputies, under which those parties that win more than 7 percent (5 percent in 2004 and earlier) of the vote receive a proportion of seats in the Duma equaling the percentage of votes each party receives. So it is unclear whether Medvedev was proposing instituting what is called a ‘binomial system’ or a return to the ‘single-mandate district’ voting for electing half of the seats. In the former, 225 seats would be apportioned according to the nationwide proportional party list voting, and the other 225 seats would be elected according to the party list vote in each district. In some such binomial systems, such as that used during Chile’s transition to democracy, there are two-mandate districts in which the two parties receiving the largest and second largest portion of votes in any single district each takes a seat. Medvedev may have been proposing this or apportioning just one seat per district in this way while leaving the nationwide PR system for apportioning the other 225 seats.
However, he might have meant a return to the single-mandate system for electing 225 of the 450 deptuties that was used prior to the 2003 Duma election for which the switch to a purely PR system was made. Prior to that 225 of the 450 seats (225) were distributed to parties according to PR party list voting, and 225 seats were taken by candidates – often independent non-party candidates -- who won the plurality of the vote in each of the 225 ‘single-mandate’ voting districts. The switch to the fully PR system at the time was regarded as a disadvantage for the YeR, since in the 1999 Duma elections the Kremlin’s party had garnered most of its Duma seats from the single-mandate districts. It is now being said by some parliamentary opposition parties and political analysts that the return to the single-mandate system is to the YeR’s advantage. The fact is that which party or parties thrive in one or another system depends in large part on each party’s ability to adapt strategy and tactics in order compete effectively under whatever system happens to be in use. The fact is that for small parties unable to reach the 5 percent barrier which will again be in force for the 2016 Duma in accordance with a recent Medvedev initiative, either mechanism is preferable to the present entirely PR system.
Fifth, Medvedev proposed reducing the number of signatures needed to register as a candidate in Russian presidential elections from 2 million to 300,000 for candidates from the parties with seats in the Duma and only 100,000 for non-parliamentary parties. Although this is not an entirely satisfactory system, it is a vast improvement over the presently prohihibitive system and another welcome change. It does not necessarily mean the end to the abuse of power made possible by a state body having at its disposal an ‘administrative resource’ like the interpretation of the veracity of signatures, which can be used to block the candidacies of individuals deemed undesirable by the authorities.
Sixth, Medvedev proposed an increase in the representation of opposition parties on electoral commissions to ensure fair voting and vote counting. Depending on the details, this could eliminate or at least reduce chaeating on behalf of the Kremlin’s party and candidates.
Seventh, Medvedev reiterated and seemed to radicalize his call for a decentralization of power from the federal level of government to the regional, municipal, and local levels.
The president proposed other reforms as well. The most noteworthy of those with political significance was the proposal to rapidly establish a public television channel in place of one of the state channels so that Russia would have a channel controlled neither by the state nor by private interests. Medvedev mentioned the military reforms, additional reforms of the sentencing parameters and the courts (which we have discussed in detail in the past), and also proposed a series of social reforms to protect children and the handicapped. Importantly, he called for inter-communal harmony and denounced nationalism, citing the late liberal academician Likhachev: “Nationalism is a manifestation of a nation’s weakness and not its strength.”
To be sure, several of the new political reforms might not immediately open up the political system to previously excluded opposition forces, since they are set to go into effect for elections in 2016 and 2018. But they mark overall major steps towards democratization in the mid- and long-term. Although difficult, it should be possible for the new Duma to pass the new bills before Medvedev’s successor takes his seat in the Kremlin. It is almost certain that his most likely successor, Premier Putin, approved of all these measures.
Thus, the mass media’s ‘Stalin of today’ so far is turning out to be quite practical, if somewhat annoyed in his recent, somewhat schizophrenic public appearances after having been challenged from the streets. Putin clearly made the reformist choice in selecting to open up the system rather than cracking down in response to the potential revolutionaries. However, these measures still fall short of the demands being made by the white ribbon opposition, and so the potential for conflict and upheaval remains.
Parliamentary Compromises in the New Duma
The regime has also taken steps to open up the newly elected VI State Duma for the parliamentary opposition parties. It has replaced Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov, infamous for his statement that the parliament was no place for political discussions. Former head of Medvedev’s presidential administration, Sergei Naryshkin, immediately signaled that the Duma could be a forum for the ongoing return of politics to Russia by stressing that the Duma would in fact be a place for “the most serious and most concrete discussions” (“Sergei Naryshkin obeshaet vernut’ v parlament diskussii,” TV Tsentr, 21 December 2011). In addition, rather than taking the chairmanships of all the Duma’s committees, the YeR took only a bare majority, 15 of 29. This should also facilitate the kind of horse trading that pluralist politics presupposes. It would be a mistake to regard the other three Duma parties as puppet parties. They are making clear demands for a greater voice and harshly opposing single-party rule by Yedinaya Rossiya. Especially in the case of the Just Russia (Spravedlivaya Rossiya or SR) party, Sergei Mironov and other members of his party seem to be moving clearly to the side of the outside opposition and the white or snow revolution. Indeed, the SR’s deputy chairman and several other top leaders attended and sometimes joined in leading the December10th mass opposition rallies in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
The media as well the thaw’s Glasnost 2.0 showed greater openness both before and after the election. The pattern of more hard-hitting talk shows persisted through the elections and was strengthened by some tough candidate debates that this time included members of the Kremlin’s YeR and harsh criticism by opposition leaders of the YeR party and Putin himself. Here is how one Russian journalist described it: “(L)ess than 48 hours before voting, the "Rossia" state TV channel aired a debate between the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and his opponent from the liberal Yabloko party, Sergey Mitrokhin, with Mr. Mitrokhin openly lashing out at Prime Minister Putin, President Medvedev and their ruling tandem. While the tension in the audience was palpable, the broadcast was not interrupted and Yabloko's leader was allowed to continue without hindrance from the program’s host. Similar ideas critical of the ruling Putin-Medvedev duo were voiced by Mr. Mitroknin in an interview aired by the REN TV channel. So, it was not only Russian opposition politicians who showed their determination "not to be polite" with the authorities. Russian TV proved it can air not only endless beauty contests, culinary lessons, and serials about fatal blondes and macho-type secret agents” (Sergey Strokan, “The present is another country,”Russia Today, 17 December 2011, www.russiatoday.com. See also “Russian state TV debate speakers in rare criticism of government,” BBC Monitoring, 6 November 2011 citing the ‘Special Correspondent’ program, Rossiya 1, 6 November 2011).
After the vote, all of the state television channels showed extensive coverage of the December 10th opposition demonstrations. As during the perestroika era, some major media figures refused to work unless they could cover the demonstrations or displayed solidarity with them by leaving the semi-official Public Chamber. NTV’s ‘Central Television’ program aired a scathing satire of Putin’s rather ‘bipolar’ performance in his annual marathon question-and-answer conference on December 15th. (“Russian TV programme pours ridicule on Putin,” BBC Monitoring, 18 December 2011 citing the ‘Central Television’ program, NTV Mir, 18 December 2011).
While not enough is being done, Medvedev ordered an investigation of the allegations of vote rigging and falsification in the December Duma elections. The investigation report detailed some cheating and concluded the heaviest falsifications occurred in Moscow, and the investigation has led to some arrests. But the independent Golos group’s own data on alleged ‘massive’ falsifications in Moscow is showing that YeR only received an additional 2 percent of the vote through rigging (see www.vedomosti.ru/tnews/geo/elections-discrepancy and note that each protocol includes some 1,500 votes). As I noted in several recent ROPV articles, the unfair and unfree nature elections had more to do with the kinds of problems Medvedev’s recent proposals would address at least in part.
Finally, Medvedev promised that all of the above was just the beginning of a larger political reform process to come. If this turns out to be the case, then it is possible that a dangerous confrontation between the state and society can be avoided and a gradual regime transformation to democracy can be fashioned.
Dr. Gordon Hahn is a Senior Researcher in the Monterey Terrorism Research and Education Program and an Adjunct Professor at the Graduate School of International Policy Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group. He is author of two books: Russia's Islamic Threat (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007) and Russia's Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition, and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2002)