Managed Democracy’s Future

Yesterday I suggested that Sunday’s regional elections in Russia suggests that there is a move to create a two party system comprising of United Russia and Just Russia. This issue was first presented in an experts’ panel on Russia Profile shortly after Rodina and the Party of Life united in August. To characterize what is possibly going on in Russian electoral politics, Jim Jatras made this comparison between Russian and Mexico under the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI):

The key to the success of this operation [of creating a two party system] is the extent to which the Kremlin sees the second party either as a clever bit of window dressing (hopefully not) or as a serious contender for power (almost certainly not – at least not for a while). In between those two extremes the new party can still play an important role in generating new ideas and legislative initiatives and, perhaps more valuably, serving as a mechanism for monitoring and discouraging the kind of corruption that otherwise would discredit a ruling monopoly.

A good comparison can be drawn here with Mexico, in which the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) played a transparent political game with the Catholic-oriented National Action Party (PAN). The fundamental understanding was that PAN conceded every national race with the compensation of occasional victories on the state and local level, plus minority representation in national institutions. Six years ago, however, after PRI had been in power for 70 years and had become thoroughly corrupt and ineffective, the party’s leaders saw that allowing PAN win presented less danger to themselves, both politically and physically, than continuing to hang on to power. Such a protracted timetable in Russia would not be realistic, but in 2007, the second party should be under no illusions that it can, or should, expect more than a respectable second-place showing, a la PAN in its classic role as a designated loser.

On Tuesday, the Financial Times pointed out the possibility of PAN Russian style. Despite its tokenness, Just Russia may at some point become a real opposition party “at least in the regions, where personality clashes dictate political divisions, as much as any ideology.” Further, Russia’s lingering remaining parties can certainly continue to participate, with probably increasing electoral restrictions (here they might take a cue from American ballot access laws), as long as they reach the 7 percent electoral threshold. But how long will that last as more people see their lot better spent on a party that might actually affect power? Will Russian voters soon hear rhetoric about “wasting votes” on smaller parties? Currently it is too soon to tell. However, as it stands now a two party system would certainly sit well with the citizenry. According to a recent poll, their political desires appear to fall somewhere in-between Putin’s “managed democracy” and the old Soviet system.

A recent opinion poll commissioned by the EU-Russia Centre suggested that only 16 per cent believe in “democracy based on a western model”. Some 26 per cent are happy with the current “managed” system, and a further 35 per cent actually believe that “the Soviet system we had before the 1990s” remains the most appropriate for Russia.

Such a poll seems to deflate FT’s point that “managed democracy” “provides no safety valve for social discontent.” It doesn’t. But is social discontent really at a level where one can talk about safety valves? To some it does.

Take for example, Boris Kagarlitsky. I tend to agree with much of Kagarlitsky’s analysis. He is one of the few that do solid analysis of Russia from a leftwing perspective. He makes some interesting observations in his most recent column, “March 2007 vs. March 1917. Historical parallels.” Kagarlitsky believes that the lacks a safety valve for popular movements in the system is its potential contradiction. “As long as the authorities don’t change the social policy,” he writes, “the union of the liberals and different social movements will only grow stronger. The growing social discontent will lead to further politicization of the society.” His historical basis for this is February 1917, when the Russia population seethed with discontent. Similarly lacking a mechanism for relieving social discontent, the Tsarist system imploded in matter of days under the pressure of popular protest.

In fact a reenactment of the February Revolution (minus October, of course) appears to be the desire of the Other Russia movement. But alas as Kagarlitsky correctly notes, “The 1917 February’s political activists were much more serious and dependable than the leaders of the United Civil Front, left alone “The Other Russia”. The civil society, at least in the cities, was incomparably better structured. The labor movement was better organized. All in all, the negative aspects are similar, while positive are not so far.” Thus contradiction of this movement, and thus the saving grace for Putin’s managed democracy might be their unwillingness to consider “radical measures.” Or to put it algebraically, a negative plus a negative equals a positive. At least it’s a positive for the emerging two party system of United Russia and Just Russia. As for Russia left-liberal forces? Well, the ball is not in their court. Nor are they even in the game. As Kagarlitsky concludes, “The authorities will continue ignoring protest actions as long they are united. As we know, revolutions start with the crisis of the elites.” It appears that one goal of a two party system is to prevent just that.