Friday, October 21, 2016

Authoritarian Post-Soviet Parliamentary Systems Increasingly Alike, New Study Finds

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 20 – Leo Tolstoy famously observed that all happy families are alike but each unhappy one is unhappy in its own way. The development of parliaments and parliamentary parties in the 12 former Soviet republics suggests Tolstoy’s observation cannot be extended to them.

            There, according to research done by Renata Badanova and reported in this week’s “Kommersant-Vlast,” four of the most authoritarian countries – Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation and Tajikistaan-- are increasingly alike, while the eight others are increasingly dissimilar (

            The Russian Federation since 2003 has had a multi-party parliament with a single dominant party. This system has “cosmetically changed in form but on the whole has withstood the test for three electoral cycles … [It] is not unique; approximately in the same form it has been formed in three CIS countries: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan.”

            In these four states, “strong pro-presidential parties coexistence in the local parliaments with two to four satellite parties, the list of which is limited and over the last several years has been almost unchanged,” Badanova says.

            “The second force in the parliaments of the last two countries are communist parties, which ever more strongly are left behind the pro-residential projects: the dominating parties have a firm majority, and year by year, it is becoming ever more overwhelming.” 

            “The dominating parties are similar by composition, by internal hierarchy, by ideology (basically center-left) and by program which usually features bright slogans, calls for stability of a strategy for the future. But the main thing is that they echo the policy of the state leader who as a rule presents himself as head of the party and approves draft bills in advance.”

            According to Baranova, “the similarity of party systems in various periods manifested itself also in other countries. But most often, such parallels were short-term and arose at the moment of transition from one type to another in the process of their ‘evolution.’” In large measure, these similarities reflected the conditions at the start of this process.

            “After the disintegration of the USSR, the 12 now alien to one another countries began a new independent political life. Each in this process went along a similar path: the state occupied itself with the formation of a political system … along the model of western democratic institutions, naturally on the basis of already existing structures.”

            In each of these countries, “as the chief sign of democracy, an elected parliament appeared” but it was invariably inherently weak. Moldova and Ukraine were the exceptions in this regard.  “But even in these [two] countries,” the presidents had pre-eminent power because they could unilaterally dismiss parliament.

            The Russian Duma was “at one and the same time similar to the other parliaments of the CIS countries and different in principle from them.”   Russia like most of the others developed arrangements in which there was “a systemic opposition” of those who were prepared to work with the powers that be and an extra-systemic one consisting of all the others.

            Another similarity between Russia and the others, Baranova continues, was “the formation of a certain pro-presidential party which enjoyed popularity but far from always occupied the leading position.” But the nature of these parties was radically different in the non-Russian countries than in Russia.

            “All the early pro-presidential parties exploited the theme of transcendental freedom and actively opposed themselves to the communists,” but in many of the non-Russian cases, those exploiting the anti-communist theme were those who had been part of the communist apparatus. In Russia, the difference between the two was typically greater.

            “Russian parties,” she writes, “especially the pro-presidential ones, could hardly receive an advantage by playing on the idea of newly acquired independence. But for the political leaders of the other countries of the CIS, this on the contrary became important” from places as different as Ukraine and Azerbaijan.

            In the mid-1990s, Baranova continues, “the majority of republics made a political bet on national ideas, but in Russia suddenly flourished a nostalgia for the Soviet past.” And that difference has continued to play out, something that distracts attention from the ways in which the parliamentary and party systems in many of the CIS countries are like those in Russia.

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