Lights, Camera, Action!

By N. S. Rubashov

Thanks to the widely-held view that Russia’s regional parliamentary elections held on Sunday were a “dress rehearsal” for December’s upcoming Duma elections, the former have received a considerable amount of attention from Russia analysts. One particularly interesting discussion that has emerged is the question of whether we are seeing the emergence of a two-party system in Russia, as the “Just Russia” party has recently been born to serve as a center-left counterweight to United Russia.

Most analysts recognize the fact that Just Russia is, like United Russia, a Kremlin creation and will not truly play the role of an oppositional party as understood in the western democratic sense. It is for this reason that it is misleading and dangerous (from an analytical standpoint) to speak of the creation of a two-party system, as the term implies true competition for power. It also implies that the parties provide distinct policy alternatives. As such, in a true two-party system, once in power the majority party implements its desired policies while the minority party tends to oppose those policies, working instead toward their own policy goals. Joseph Schumpeter and the followers of his intellectual tradition rightly recognized that electoral competition for power is the essence of democracy. Using the term “two-party system” to describe Russia runs the risk of leading readers to believe that such competition exists or will exist in the future, when in fact it does not and will not for the foreseeable future.

What then, is the meaning of Just Russia and the December Duma elections? It seems likely that the Duma elections will be a carefully-staged production whereby all the major actors have memorized their lines and their stage directions, and are prepared to carry out their assigned roles. The directors of the production will have worked tirelessly to pull off a flawless show that has all the glitz, glitter, and glamour of a democratic election, complete with parties competing for power. But because the director has not only selected which actors are allowed to perform, what emerges is not actual competition but the illusion of competition.

One might go so far as to surmise that in this sense, the Duma elections are themselves just a dress rehearsal for the presidential elections of March 2008, whereby two candidates will compete in what will look like a fairly balanced and competitive election. In fact, it wouldn’t be too surprising if the contest between Medvedev and Ivanov looks downright democratic. But one cannot overlook the immense power of the casting director, for both these candidates have been carefully auditioned and approved from above, while remaining hopefuls are shut out of the performance or pushed off to the side. Thus, by carefully planning the production ahead of time, it is once again possible to put on a “democratic show,” albeit one where the choices available to the audience have been determined by the director.

Perceptive observers might question whether the American system of candidate selection before the introduction of the primary system was any better. After all, weren’t presidential candidates selected in smoke-filled rooms by party leaders? Does that make Roosevelt’s selection just as managed as Ivanov’s. There are two important reasons why we must draw a distinction. First, candidates in that era were selected by the elites of their respective parties, parties which were in opposition with one another. As such, the occupant of the White House did not select both the Republican and Democratic candidate.

Furthermore, and this is a far more important point for Russia’s case, the political science literature on political parties has identified several functions that western parties perform, the most important of which is the aggregation of public opinion and the communication of that opinion to the state. When diffused and scattered, public opinion has little ability to influence state policy. When aggregated through political parties sharing a common ideological platform, public opinion becomes a powerful tool to influence policy. To return to the U.S. example, we can thus posit that even though candidates were selected by a handful of elites, those elites were still selecting candidates that would be appealing to the party base which would have to be mobilized in the general election.

In Russia political parties (perhaps with the exception of the KPRF) do not really function in this way, as the links between the citizenry and the parties are largely lacking. For an insightful discussion of the role of political parties in Russian politics, see Mankoff, J. “Russia’s Weak Society and Weak State: The Role of Political Parties,” Problems of Post-Communism, 50:1. January-February 2003, p. 29-43.

The failure of parties like United Russia and Just Russia to serve as aggregators of public opinion and their lack of strong ties to the grassroots level leads to several important implications for the Russian political system.

First, it implies that party platforms do not originate within society, but are rather top-down creations which run the risk of being detached from the needs and desires of the public.

Second, it implies that parties themselves are not accountable to the electorate once they gain power. Because parties are not accountable to the people that elect them but rather to the powers that allow them to exist in the political sphere, there will likely result a disconnect between the words of the campaign and the deeds of holding power. This fact only enhances the spectacular democratic show previewed above. It is likely that United Russia and Just Russia will carry out a campaign complete with the rhetoric of opposing political parties, each presenting their own visions for the future of Russia. Thus, like Democrats and Republicans in America, Russian voters will drift to the camp that comes closest to sharing their views. By all appearances, a convincing contest between political parties with different platforms will have occurred, determining the overall distribution of seats in the new Duma.

But what happens on the next day? Parties and their leaders understand Russian politics all too well. While voters may have determined the number of seats they won (the audience’s applause, if you will), they know that it is really the director to whom they owe their career and their future ability to act on the stage. After all, they are his creation. Thus, it will come as no surprise if much of the oppositional rhetoric of the campaign is quickly dropped as both major parties line up in support of the Kremlin. The lack of ties between parties and citizens, along with the apparent passivity of the Russian electorate, will ensure that the parties will not be held accountable by the people for their practical homogenization.

As such, Russia will be left with not a two-party system, but simply a system. It is a system where actors play the role of parties and perform those roles quite convincingly when the audience is watching at election time. But once the play is over and the lights are dimmed, the costumes come off and they go back to their normal roles as functionaries.

Nor should this situation even be considered a one-party system, as that implies the presence of a dominant single party that wields hegemonic power over the political sphere, as did the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Such a party does not exist in Russia, for while United Russia is the overwhelmingly largest party in parliament, its power and the power of the Duma is relatively weak compared to the power of the executive. That is why the most powerful man is Russia is the President, who belongs to no party, and not the “General Secretary” of United Russia.

Until Russian political parties begin fulfilling the functions traditionally performed by parties in democratic political systems, it is unlikely that they will be independent political agents carrying out the will of their members. To return to our theatrical metaphor, in a democracy the citizens should be the directors who give direction to the “actors,” parties. Until this arrangement takes hold in Russia, competition between parties will be relatively meaningless and unlikely to have a significant influence on policy outcomes. Whether United Russia wins more votes or victory goes to Just Russia, the outcome will be the same because they both answer to the same director.

It seems that Russians are more or less content with their current political arrangements, satisfied with the stability, order, and prosperity that the last 7 years under Putin have brought. Let us suppose for a moment what might happen if this satisfaction should erode, either because of economic downturn or a rising middle class that begins to bristle under an overly restricted political system. What might the future hold in that case?

Because political parties are not meaningful agents of political action, it is likely that political action will take to the streets, where mass demonstrations will perform the function of aggregating and amplifying citizens’ voices. The recent oppositional rally in St. Petersburg is an indicator that the streets are the only places where political opposition can be expressed in a way that authorities can hear. In the long term it is possible that the parties themselves will evolve and eventually build mass constituencies, developing into political parties along the western model. But this evolution implies that eventually the wishes of the party base, as carried out by the party, might one day clash with the wishes of the Kremlin director. Whether party development would ever be allowed to reach such a state is difficult to say.

Neither of these developments – mass protest or evolution of the nature of political parties – is likely to happen anytime soon, as there seems to be little dissatisfaction among most Russians with the status quo (don’t forget the 141,997,000 Russians who weren’t protesting in St. Petersburg).

After all, what could be more pleasant that a night at the theater?

N. S. Rubashov runs the blog Darkness at Noon. His article “Separate but Unequal: The Duality of Free Speech in Russia” was published on La Russophobe.