The Navalny Challenge Behind the Scenes of Russia's Imitated Democracy
Part 2: Allowing the People to Speak
Zhirinovsky has a spacious corner office in parliament. Signs hanging on the walls point to an obsession with hygiene. "Please no hugs, handshakes or kisses."
When asked what exactly he is engaged in, opposition politics or theater acting, he says: "Of course we behave tactically ahead of votes. But we stand opposed to the government and to the president. We're a little bit like the flu. Do you want us to turn into tuberculosis?" The opposition as a contagious disease -- it's an interesting metaphor.
In June, a serious mishap occured on the stage of the Russian political theater -- one which provides an insight into the role played by the Duma. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin had developed a plan to tear down all of the five-story residential buildings erected from the 1950s to the 1970s and rehouse 1.5 million Muscovites in modern residential towers. The 47-billion-euro project was conceived as a gift to the electorate -- and to the construction lobby. The parliament was to quickly pass a law giving the mayor a free hand for resettlement and construction. But things turned out differently when furious apartment owners began protesting the attempt to expropriate them.
Nobody inside Russia's patriarchic bureaucracy had apparently foreseen such a reaction. In response, Duma Chairman Volodin invited a handpicked group of those affected by the plan to a "parliamentary hearing." Some of those opposed to the planned demolitions were also allowed to have their say and the mayor politely responded to them. The leaders of the protests, though, weren't allowed in, left instead to demonstrate outside.
The hearing was broadcast live on television and was the liveliest event that had taken place in the Duma for quite some time. It was like a successful theater production: It presented the Duma as a place where those in power listened to common citizens. Yet the opposite was true: If representatives of the people must be replaced by the people themselves before those in power are willing to listen, then something has gone badly wrong in a representational democracy.
The renovation law bore all the hallmarks of the construction lobby, which has joined forces with municipal housing companies to create one of the most powerful interest groups in Russian politics, says political scientist Yekaterina Schulman. "They don't care about elections. They don't think about Putin. They crush everybody who gets in their way."
Other interest groups -- retail, agriculture, defense or competing secret service agencies -- have their own representatives in parliament. For them, the Duma is more than just decoration. "It is reminiscent of the lobbyism practiced in democracies," Schulman says, "with one important distinction: Among the interests represented by parliamentarians, those of the voters themselves are missing." Everyone has a lobby -- except for the citizens of Russia.
Waking Up from a Slumber
The Duma is therefore best imagined as a stock exchange, a place where Russia's bureaucratic class negotiates how to apply the instructions coming from the Kremlin, who should be allowed to profit and to what degree. Only a tiny portion of these negotiations is visible on the plenary floor. The amount of leeway is entirely dependent on who stands behind a particular draft bill. It takes courage to stand up to the government, but it takes even more courage to stand up to the secret services. And opposing the president is unthinkable.
But if the Duma is more than just decoration and does represent a kind of stock exchange, then there exists within the system of imitated democracy the embryo of real politics, of an open conflict of interests worthy of the name. That, in any case, is what Schulman believes. The fact that this version of the Duma has an ambitious chairman in the form of Vyacheslav Volodin reinforces this trajectory, she says. "I wouldn't rule out him having aspirations for the presidency."
It would be good for the country if the Duma were to wake up from its slumber and finally fulfill its constitutional role. This would give Russia a place where political conflict is visible.
But if nothing happens, then the fight for power will continue to be carried out elsewhere -- either hidden behind the walls of the Kremlin, or amid the potential chaos of street protests and clashes between protesters and police. The chances for renewed protests have risen with Navalny's exclusion from the presidential election; the opposition politician has already called for a "voters' strike" and nationwide protests on Jan. 28 in response.
"A vote without competition is no vote at all," Navalny has said. Indeed, it looks as though Russians will have to tolerate their imitated democracy for a bit longer.
- Part 1: Behind the Scenes of Russia's Imitated Democracy
- Part 2: Allowing the People to Speak