Staunton, September 12 – Like those in other authoritarian regimes, the Duma elections in Russia have “predictable results but unpredictable consequences,” Ekaterina Schulmann says, suggesting that the Duma to be elected next Sunday will be more significant than its predecessor regardless of the precise division in the number of seats among the parliamentary parties.
In a commentary in “Vedomosti” today, the political analyst at the Russian Academy of Economics and State Service argues that observers are paying too much attention to the programs the various parties are offering in the campaigns and too little to the calendar in which the new Duma will operate (vedomosti.ru/opinion/articles/2016/09/12/656536-zaimetsya-duma).
A major reason for that conclusion, Schulmann suggests, is that “the executive power defines the work of the parliament, and its agenda in turn is connected with a number of external and internal factors which the power machine does not control or controls only in part,” such as the price of oil, the outcome of the American elections, and intra-elite struggles.
Moreover, she continues, those the powers that be allow to run are people who have shown them loyal to the regime rather than to any party program. They have implicitly or explicitly agreed to follow whatever the Kremlin wants even if it directly contradicts what their party programs specify.
Another reason for this conclusion, Schulmann says, is the reappearance of Duma deputies elected in single-mandate constituencies. Even if these people are nominally members of one or another party, they are “to a greater degree” than those elected by party list tied to local elites and even less inclined to follow any particular party program.
For them, membership in a party is a way to gain entrance to the Duma rather than a set of ideas that such new deputies are committed to advance. How they will act in the new Duma is thus far more an open question than is that of deputies elected as in the recent past only according to party lists.
Schulmann argues that it is already possible to “see what will define the agenda of the new Duma,” and she suggests there are three main areas in which it will have to operate and which give it the opportunity to play a far more significant role in Russian politics than its predecessor has.
First of all, she says, because half of its deputies will be from single-member districts, the old divisions among the parties will be different in the amount of influence they have. “The single mandate members will be much more firmly connected with regional elites and group interests than with the party leadership and the political management in Moscow.”
Both the Presidential Administration and the Duma leadership will “propose to the potential regional fronde surrogates in the form of ‘inter-fraction unions’ and other informal interest clubs.” But these are unlikely to work as effectively in controlling what those elected from single mandate districts will do as the authorities may hope.
Second, the Duma will have the opportunity to play a greater role in budgetary matters, not only because the government has shifted from a three-year-budget to an annual one and because the regime faces enormous difficulties in squaring income and spending because of the crisis.
Both in public and behind the scenes, Duma members and perhaps especially those from single mandate districts will get involved in the struggles among the bureaucracies and the regions for what money there is. Indeed, Schulmann suggests, recent finance ministry statements about military spending and pensions suggest that is extremely likely.
And third, the new Duma will be in office in the run-up to presidential elections in 2018, thus putting it in a position to affect outcomes at least at the margins. And to the extent that the new Duma will be elected with fewer violations, it will have “firmer legitimacy” than did the one it replaces.
These changes, she continues, may be able to work for the interests of Russian citizens because competition within the legislature, triggered by events and by the rise of the single mandate deputies, is likely to lead to the involvement of experts and the media in discussions about new laws. That has the potential to make them more responsible.
“Therefore,” Schulmann says, “the civic interest lies in the growth of parliamentary diversity,” something promoted by the influx of those from single mandate constituencies who “will represent their territories and not the Moscow television.”
She concludes by observing that “the well-known principle of political success – ‘anticipate the inevitable and help it arrive’ – only seems a kind of pure opportunism. In fact, it is necessary to make the inevitable possible,” lest it arrive too late and with disastrous consequences.
Schulmann ends by pointing to two such tasks: Industrialization is inevitable but if it comes to late it will involve “the mass dying off of the peasantry,” and federalization is inevitable but if it comes too slowly, it will be “realized in the form of armed separatism” with all the consequences that would entail.
Thus, the political analyst says, “the new Duma is fated to be at one and the same time less united and more significant than its immediate predecessors. But if its composition is again defined by administrative force without the participation of the voters, it will be more difficult for it to play its objectively driven role.”