Opposition leader Alexei Navalny was recently excluded from running against Vladimir Putin in the presidential election scheduled this March in Russia. The reason is clear: A real politician is unwelcome against the backdrop of the country's imitated democracy.
Running a democracy isn't easy. But imagine how challenging it must be to imitate one! Sets must be constantly rearranged and political roles must be assigned. The lighting has to be perfect and everybody needs to know their lines. Most importantly, though, the script must be well thought out far into the future, because the performance has no end.
The way in which Russia elects its president is an example of this form of simulated democracy. Just recently, the Central Election Commission excluded Alexei Navalny, the only opposition politician who had run a serious campaign, from running in this year's election. The candidate, the commission noted, has a criminal record, which disqualifies him from challenging the incumbent, Vladimir Putin.
As is typical of imitated democracies, the decision to prohibit Navalny from running is formally correct. He does indeed have a criminal record. But the logic, in this case, is reversed: In order to prevent Navalny from running for office, he was convicted several years ago in a bizarre trial for alleged embezzlement, proceedings that were criticized by the European Court of Human Rights. Just as Russia has no separation of powers, it also lacks an independent judiciary -- with the upshot being that Putin will once again run against handpicked opponents in March.
The exclusion of Navalny marks the end of an interesting experiment. Navalny's daring plan was to act as a real politician in a simulated election campaign. Like a member of the audience who suddenly jumps onto the stage, he wanted to force his way into official Russian politics. He was the only one to run a campaign worthy of the name, with trips across the country filled with passionate appearances, a permanent staff and rallies. His calculation was that if the Kremlin were to exclude the only real challenger, it would expose the election charade as a fraud, a scenario the Russian leadership would surely like to avoid.
But the Kremlin took a different tack and prevented real politics from intruding on its simulated democracy. On a stage filled with fake props and actors posing as politicians, it is too dangerous to allow a real politician to be seen.
Imitated democracy is a complex political entity. It comes without free and fair elections, an independent parliament and an independent judiciary. But neither does it come with the mass mobilization and mass repression characteristic of dictatorships. Imitated democracy relies more on deception than on violence.
The best place to observe the day-to-day functioning of such a system is the Russian parliament. The Duma in Moscow is the set before which the rivalry of political ideas is emulated. It is subordinate to the Kremlin, yet plays a critical role in Russian power structures. Opposition, debates, arguments: It's all there, and it all looks like it could almost be real.
One of the advantages of imitated democracy is obvious: It is faster than real democracy. Indeed, the Duma set another speed record just recently. From one plenary session to the next, essentially over the weekend, it overhauled the country's treatment of foreign media. It began on a Friday in November. In a gray building located on Ochotny Rjad in the heart of the city, where the Soviet State Planning Committee once had its headquarters, Russian parliamentarians gathered for a plenary session.
An Aging Singer with a Toupee
It is a colorful group, one that includes the first woman to have traveled to space, a chess world champion and a heavyweight boxer, for whom an extra-wide chair has been installed. There's a polar explorer who planted a Russian flag on the floor of the Arctic Ocean beneath the North Pole and an aging singer with a toupee who is widely referred to as the Russian Frank Sinatra. And one shouldn't forget the man who poisoned the renegade FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko with polonium in London and was rewarded with a seat in the Duma for his efforts.
On that Friday in November, the mood in the plenary hall was agitated; the issue of the day was a dispute with Washington. The U.S. Department of Justice had just requested that Russian foreign broadcaster RT (formerly known as Russia Today) register as a foreign agent.
The lawmakers in the Duma were furious, with the body demanding that the attack on press freedoms be met with a "symmetric" reply. During the lunch break, that reply was agreed on by the floor leaders of the parties represented in the Duma and three workdays later, a completed draft law was passed by the parliament. There were no votes against the law. There were no abstentions. Attendance that day was 91 percent, with 411 of 450 lawmakers present.
Thanks to this new law, every foreign media outlet, including DER SPIEGEL, can be declared a "foreign agent." In its haste, however, the Duma neglected to clarify which agency can make such a designation, the criteria it will consider and the consequences for the media outlet in question.
The speed with which the law was passed, of course, is a consequence of the Duma not being what it claims to be. According to the Russian constitution, it has similar powers to France's National Assembly -- like France, Russia is a presidential republic. The reality, however, is that Russian lawmakers have little influence over the government and none at all over the president, who is elected directly by voters. The Kremlin controls the Duma much like a puppeteer animates his puppets.
The Duma hasn't always been this docile. In the 1990s, it threatened then-President Boris Yeltsin with impeachment, rejected his nominee for prime minister and made sweeping changes to the budget. The majorities in the body were thin and every third law that was passed was challenged by the upper house of parliament, the Federation Council. Those times, however, ended long ago. Under Putin, the Duma has become little more than a simulation of parliament.
Currently, though, Vyacheslav Volodin, who has been chairman of the Duma for the last year, is doing what he can to refurbish the lawmaking body's battered reputation. But he isn't doing so out of a desire to strengthen democracy in the country. Rather, he used to be a key member of the Kremlin administration, and the appointment to head the Duma is a demotion in present-day Russia. The ambitious Volodin is doing what he can to increase the influence of his new position, and the only way he can do that is to increase the influence of the Duma in its entirety.
Volodin brought an authoritarian leadership style with him when he transferred from the Kremlin to parliament. The first thing he sought to do was to eliminate the most ridiculous draft laws before they made it to the floor and to reduce the speed with which draft laws speed through the lawmaking body. Furthermore, Volodin has increased attendance in the plenary, threatening those who miss a session without an excuse with salary deduction of 60.000 rubles (870 euros).
Valery Rashkin, a parliamentarian representing the Communist Party, is disdainful of the new attendance requirement. "We're counting butt-hours," he says. "People say Volodin has finally given the Duma a face just because we are now all in the plenary. But whether you are there or not, it has no effect on the laws. Either way, it's just a United Russia assembly line," he adds, referring to Putin's political party.
And he's not wrong. The party occupies 343 of 450 seats in parliament, three times as many as all three opposition parties put together.
Rashkin is a prominent member of his party: He keeps a bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police, in his office. When Rashkin was first elected to the Duma in 1999, shortly before the beginning of the Putin era, the Communist Party was still powerful and controlled the Duma chairmanship as the largest party in parliament.
Since then, however, it has all been downhill -- for both the Communists and parliamentary democracy. In 2010, a video was made public which showed a few representatives running through an empty plenary hall pushing voting buttons. The law in question was the zero-tolerance limit for driving under the influence. According to the electronic vote-counting device used in the Duma, 449 of 450 lawmakers had been present.
The situation further deteriorated during the 6th Duma, which got its start in 2011. At lightning speed, the Russian parliament passed repressive laws allowing the Kremlin to suppress anti-Putin protests. The opposition at the time had many more seats in the Duma than today, but the concept carries little meaning in Russia. The real opposition never even makes it into the Duma because they are not allowed to participate in elections or numerous hurdles are placed in their paths. It is almost impossible to establish a new party in Russia without the Kremlin's acquiescence -- as was demonstrated when Navalny supporters tried in vain to register a new party called the Progress Party.
An Absence of Real Political Debate
The opposition within the Duma, by contrast, is under de facto Kremlin control. That's true of all three opposition fractions: the Communist Party (42 seats), the nationalist LDPR led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky (40 seats) and the A Just Russia party (23 seats), which the Kremlin founded as a left-wing alternative to United Russia.
"There isn't a single real opposition lawmaker in the Duma anymore," says Dmitry Gudkov. The 37-year-old knows what he's talking about, too. He used to be a parliamentarian for A Just Russia before gettting thrown out of the fraction in 2013 for disobedience. He remained in parliament as a lone rebel until 2016, when he failed to get re-elected. Now, he's part of the "non-systemic opposition" and has to begin anew as a local politician in Moscow.
Gudkov misses several of his former Duma colleagues, but says that real political debate is virtually absent from the lawmaking body. "Those at the top aren't just afraid of a revolution, they are even afraid of lively discussion." And because the Kremlin keeps a tight leash on the opposition parties in parliament, controlling their access to television and approving their candidate lists, they are extremely tame.
The limits of acceptable behavior were on full display last April -- and it is hardly surprising that Alexei Navalny was involved, if only tangentially. During the annual report provided to the Duma by Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, the Communists dared to ask him about the corruption accusations Navalny had levelled against him in a YouTube video posted in March of last year.
Some 16 million Russians had seen the video, which focused on Medvedev's collection of villas and other properties. And it wasn't even really a complete question, more of a shyly mumbled utterance. But criticizing the prime minister is taboo, as is any positive mention of Navalny. The Duma chairman instantly rebuked the lawmaker.
The fact that anything at all happens on the plenary floor despite the tight controls is largely thanks to people like Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Imitated democracy, after all, requires an imitated opposition and Zhirinovsky is a gifted actor. He is constantly deluding people into thinking that real debate takes place in the Duma. But the fact of the matter is that he is absolutely loyal to the Kremlin, as his voting record proves.
"Next March, I will be moving into the Kremlin and then I will shoot and hang you, you reprobates and scoundrels," he once yelled from the podium, pointing his finger at United Russia lawmakers. Later, he insisted he didn't mean the insults personally. It was just like in the theater, he explained: When an actor insults the audience, nobody in the crowd feels insulted.
Allowing the People to SpeakZhirinovsky 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.
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