Russian Parliament in the Gap Between Past and Future

Theories on the future of the Russian parliament – as well as assessments of its past – have become inextricably linked with current debates on the ways in which the domestic political system should be developed as a whole and the concepts and modalities of our future statehood in terms of the sovereignty of the people.

Even some hypothetical questions that seemed only recently to be resolved have suddenly returned to the fore: for instance, whether democracy is always better than authoritarian rule, whether Russia needs a parliament, and whether it is generally developing along the same lines as other democracies.

A surge of Stalinist nostalgia – primarily shared by those who lived not with him but with his latter day image – does not amount to a wish for nightly abductions and gulags so much as discontent with what is being popularly – and unreasonably – ascribed to democracy. The list includes ineffective and weak state institutions, outstanding social problems, the exigencies of a vertical power structure – see the Kushchevskaya village – and the poor implementation of the federal plans in the provinces. Sometimes, people think that if Stalin or someone like him were in charge, he would have put things in order, developed industry, imprisoned money grubbers and corrupt officials, scrubbed television clean, and dealt with the dissenters.

Others are propagating racialized theories that democracy, the parliamentary system, and partisanship are not beneficial for all nations and that some cannot do without an iron fist.

There are varying assessments of the current events in North Africa: some see them as yet another American conspiracy, whereas others attribute them exclusively to socio-economic or religious-ethnic factors. But the fact is that the most active participants in the riots in the Muslim world are far from being poor. They belong to the middle class. These are educated young people who are upset by the lack of political prospects, injustice, corruption, and their inability to “make it” in societies that are governed by clans and lack the social or occupational futures of a civil society.

Arab nations are not unique in this regard. On the contrary, they are very much like their counterparts in Europe who are also looking to the experience of older and more advanced countries. They by no means consider their countries to be “genetically insufficient” for Western-style democracy. We do have our own peculiarities, but don’t these also exist in Japan, South Korea, Singapore, India, and Brazil? The fundamental, tried-and-true principles are the same, including an effective parliament, honest elections, and the real political parties that countries currently in upheaval tend to lack.

The Russian parliamentary system is too young for us to judge or teach Muslim nations, but we believe that our experience can help us better divine our own national future.

Work on this material has encouraged me to make a digression into the history of Russian political theory and practice because it is important to understand not only universal principles and standards but also national ones, which are specific to the historic assimilation or generation of such principles by a people. On the one hand, an exclusive reliance on common humanistic notions may make them incompatible with national specificities and lead to the popular rejection of many useful institutions and practices. But on the other hand, if we ignore such universal principles and convert to a demonstrative search for our own “third” road, we may lose time only to reinvent the wheel. The history of the State Duma is a poignant example. It will be 105 years old this year, but in reality, its historical life was cut short by a reprieve of seven and a half decades.

Usually, the history of the Russian parliamentary system is divided into three stages: pre-Soviet (1906-1917), Soviet (1917-1993), and post-Soviet (following the adoption of the 1993 Constitution). However, there are many conventions here to be questioned, especially in regard to the inclusion of the Soviet period in the history of our parliamentary system. Many will object. The Soviet period was sooner lost to our parliamentary history, and we have since come back to its roots. The classic authors of Marxism-Leninism may equally have objected if we had analyzed their experience as part of Russia’s parliamentary history in the true sense of the word. In his work. Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder , Lenin wrote that the parliamentary system had been “historically eliminated” on a global scale – i.e., that the era of bourgeois parliamentary rule was over and the era of the dictatorship of the proletariat had come to pass… He emphasized that advanced working class revolutionaries had come to despise parliamentary rule in Europe and America.

There are also many interesting moments in our history pertaining, for instance, to the question of whether our people are prone to a democratic mentality or prefer to be ruled “with a firm hand.” We remember the veche (people’s assembly) rule in Kievan Rus in the 11th-13th centuries. It was a form of direct democracy, akin to the Swiss model of local referendums on local issues rather than parliamentary government. There is also the experience of the Boyar aristocratic republics of the 12th-15th centuries and the Land Assemblies of the 16th-17th centuries. The local community was also a major form of self-organization in Russia. Alexander Hertzen wrote that it “…saved the Russian people from Mongolian barbarity and imperial civilization, European-like feudalism, and German bureaucracy.”

However, in reality, the choice between different models of government was influenced not so much by cultural peculiarities as by the specific factors influencing the formation of a given nation and its statehood and, hence, by the issues that it had to resolve. These factors were military (the aggressiveness of one's neighbors), geographical (plains or mountains; an island or mainland), and climatic. On a par with other circumstances, they dictated a form of rule.

Our famous historian and statesman Vasily Tatishchev wrote in his History of Russia History from the Most Early Times : “Only three declared forms of rule – monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy – are considered decent… In some cities and small regions, democracy can preserve its tranquility. In places that are not in danger because they are surrounded by seas or unsurpassable mountains, and especially where people are educated, aristocracy may rule quite well, as England and Sweden prove. But when territories are vast and borders are open, where people are not educated and work out of fear rather than conscience, the first two forms cannot apply, and monarchy is their only option.”

In a way, this view is consonant with many modern opinions on the exigencies of state rule, depending, for one, on its territory: what is good for little Malta may not work for a territory stretched across several time belts.

Indicatively, Tatishchev mentioned education as one of the major factors in favor of democratic rule, and our thinkers have advocated the idea of the “maturity” necessary for democracy for many centuries and even now.

Although monarchy triumphed in Russia at an early stage and for a long time thereafter, eventually becoming absolute power, our nation, just like the majority of other European nations, has been trying to resolve the problem of the correlation between democratic and authoritarian principles throughout its history, including in recent times. The histories of many nations have seen ups and downs in this respect: the French Revolution, the February Revolution in Russia, Bonapartism, Nazism, Stalinism, the events in Russia and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They are proof of how dramatic and diverse this experience is for every nation faced with the question of its future rule.

In general, the national history and character of each nation was reflected in the path it had chosen for itself at a particular stage in its development and in how it tailored the need for centralized government to the people's right to choose their own destinies. The factors Tatishchev mentions clearly played a role here, as did national and religious traditions. Now more factors are in play, such as local practice and participation in international institutions, like the Council of Europe, which applies universal standards and rules to its members.

It is thus possible to draw the important conclusion that there is no ideal correlation – no correct ratio – at which all nations should arrive, as we once thought they would arrive at a perfect communism. Each nation should pursue not universal ideals but rather a model that can take into account all of its own circumstances and vicissitudes of its current life: its geography, neighbors, traditions, degree of civility, etc. It is quite natural for forms of governance to change with time. This does not mean that they were wrong but rather that their time has simply expired. It is dangerous not to consider the potential for change that a given society has accumulated, and it is useless to export forms of governance that such a society does not require.

However, one can also talk of certain minimum level of standards and norms that a person is entitled to in a civilized society of the 21st century – a kind of a “democratic minimum” below which a society cannot be considered democratic, despite any references to its national cultural peculiarities. As a rule, when the state crosses this “red line”, public protests erupt. It is a delicate issue, inasmuch as one needs to be able to decide whether real rights and freedoms are being threatened or whether the state is simply choosing a form of governance appropriate to a particular historical juncture.

The consequences of various forms of rule are by no means predetermined. Sometimes, strong authoritarian rulers help unite lands and countries, establish effective institutions, and carry out progressive reforms. At the same time, decentralized forms of rule – in Russia’s case the Seven Boyars government, for example – occasionally led to troubles and calamities.

In the preface to his Ancient Russian History , Mikhail Lomonosov compared the Russian state to ancient Rome: “I see one difference: the Roman state became stronger under civil rule and declined under monarchy. In contrast, Russia approached total destruction as a result of freedom of ideas, whereas the monarchy consolidated it and helped it grow stronger and better-known after the hard times. Hence our confidence that the well-being of our state lies in one-man rule. This is the rationale to our bliss that has been proven by so many great examples.”

However, this does not mean that nobody in Russia thought about democratization. Tatishchev wrote with good reason that the more educated the people or a given social stratum is, the more they are willing to take an active part in shaping the destiny of their homeland. The influence of other states was also bound to affect Russia. In the 19th century, it was influenced by Europe, and in the 20th century history repeated itself. Now people in North Africa are also looking to more advanced nations and no longer wish to tolerate authoritarian rule.

A draft constitution was written in the early 19th century on instructions from Alexander I. It was called the “State Charter of the Russian Empire.” Article 91 read: “Let the Russian people always have popular representation from this day forward. This will be done in the State Duma, consisting of the Tsar and two chambers.” The Senate and the Embassy Chambers were to include representatives from rural areas and regional urban societies. Needless to say, the decisions of this body came into law only on endorsement by the Tsar. Otherwise, their “projects shall be destroyed” (Article 135). The draft constitution envisaged representative bodies for the provinces as well: “separate dumas (bodies of each region convened every three years)” (Article 100).

However, since most of these provisions remained on paper, society’s reaction was harsh. It is enough to recall the Decembrist revolts – radical ideas of representative rule were expressed in Pavel Pestel’s Russkaya Pravda (Russian Truth) and Nikita Muravyov’s draft constitution – and in the massive riots of the early 20th century that led to the establishment of the first State Duma.

Their grievances are no less relevant today: the absence of mechanisms for public control, honest elections, and a functional opposition may lead to a “Russian revolt, mindless and ruthless.”

Mikhail Petrasehvsky, the founder of one of the first informal political groups in Russia (of which Fyodor Dostoyevsky was a member), expressed an interesting idea on this score: “A well-organized opposition is an important element to any effective rule. By rebelling against all kinds of government and administrative abuses, it promotes the health of the body politic by giving it energy and dynamism. Parliamentary struggles emanating from different interests help… define common national interests, expose the responsibilities, shortcomings, and ailments of politics to the public and prevent the public mind from stagnating in apathy and falling into decay. By rectifying administrative activities, this struggle protects the rights of reason against acts of outrage…”

In Russian history, supreme power always had to reconcile its authoritarian rule –conditioned by political realities – with society’s inevitable demand for democratization. Judging by how things ended for the Russian monarchy, one can infer that this tension was resolved either inadequately or belatedly. (Nicholas II agreed to the establishment of a parliament under strong pressure from below; Alexander II was killed three days prior to the final negotiations for forming a representative body; and in 1917, the Constituent Assembly was born amid revolutionary masses that were sooner staging a revolt than calling for representative institutions).

Most likely, the problem with Russia is that, in comparison with other European states, it did not experience the long and gradual development of such major political institutions as parties that could adequately reflect the interests of particular groups, or estates, within the population.

The October Revolution nipped that process in the bud, which obstructed the formation of a functioning multi-party system in our time. It is quite possible that if the budding multi-party system had not been destroyed, by the 1930s, we would have had parties for peasants, workers (Social Democrats), commoners, merchants, industrialists and capitalists, reactionary conservatives (monarchists), etc.

However, history followed a different course. Parties and a parliament were forced out of the picture for dozens of years in order to resolve those very same issues that had languished unresolved at the start of the last century. It would be interesting to know how those Russian thinkers of the time who preserved a link with the past envisioned a way out of socialism.

Prominent émigré conservative historian Ivan Ilyin wrote in 1951 that “no matter what course the events in Russia may take, no national elections will be possible in the first years after the fall of Bolsheviks… You don’t elect anyone during chaos… What Russia needs after the revolution is a state-run, sober, and wise dictatorship.”

In his opinion, this did not mean a complete rejection of elections. However, he believed that “it is impossible to speak about elections before the national dictator selects an honest and ideologically motivated government that would be able to compile honest ballot papers.” Ilyin believed that large categories of people should be barred from voting, including minors (men under 24 and women under 30) and the “demented, insane, deaf and mute, inveterate drunks, and cocaine addicts.” He also called for the permanent disenfranchisement of internationalists, executioners, gulag chiefs, and members of the Sovnarkom (Soviet of People’s Commissars), Politburo, Cheka, GPU, NKVD, and MVD (Ministry of the Interior). According to Ilyin, rank-and-file communists and exposed political informants would then be given the vote back after 20 years and criminal offenders after 10.

Ilyin attached primary importance not to parties (“any party is essentially a political conspiracy encroaching on government power”) but to the voters and those they elect. In his opinion, it would make sense for Russia to have a system similar to the American Electoral College in this transitional period: “at first, rather than elect the members of the State Duma, they will elect the electors – or even the electors of the electors. In other words, what we need are not direct elections, but multi-staged elections whereby it is possible to elect people in a calm, sober, and businesslike atmosphere…” Apparently, Ilyin was afraid that the electorate might hand over power to God knows whom if intoxicated by the “air of freedom.”

This could have been considered an exaggeration if it had not been for Yury Karyakin’s famous 'Russia-you- have-gone-crazy' statement on the triumph of the Liberal-Democratic Party in 1993. Three years later, we had a real chance at electing a communist president, which could have resulted in yet another rejection of the nascent democratic option.

Prominent Russian thinker Boris Chicherin wrote in his essay “On People’s Representation”: “…we should not think that representation will instantly lead to parliamentary rule. It will be impossible until the parties have matured and proven their ability to run the state.”

Clearly, post-Soviet Russia faced inevitable problems related to the need to form not only a parliament but also parties that would reflect the interests of different groups of people. This task was all the more urgent because, at times, these groups did not formulate their own interests or perceive themselves as a public force demanding representation or having a political agenda.

Moreover, this was taking place against the backdrop of an economic crisis caused by radical reforms that were breeding dangerous popular mistrust of democratic institutions.

As a result, initially Russia became a typical parliamentary republic, but its objective realities required stronger executive rule – in part, to prevent the restoration of the former regime for the reasons mentioned by Ilyin. The tension between centralization and decentralization came to the fore again and led to the 1993 crisis. The activities of the Congress of People’s Deputies and the Supreme Soviet were interrupted by Presidential Decree 1400 of September 21, 1993, and elections to the Russian Federal Assembly were announced. Russia adopted a new Constitution that proclaimed it a presidential republic on December 12, 1993.

Each nation has to find the best option for itself at each stage in its history, and today, the current model is what's best for Russia. This by no means implies that parliament and parties should not consolidate their role in the political system in the future. But to do so, we need guarantees that, having assumed power, no party will turn the country inside-out – which is a possibility if the reins are turned over to arch communists or nationalists (everyone remembers the Nazis’ legal rise to power in the Germany of the 1930s). It is also necessary to establish large, popular, and responsible parties that can represent the real interests of broad public strata.

This is why the new Russia had to find a model that would be neither “tsarist” (in which parliament would serve as a conciliatory body to the president), nor in the style of perestroika (in which parliament led to the crisis of 1993 as a result of its overly weighted role). The current emphasis on the consolidation of parties (including restrictions on small political formations) is aimed at the accelerated development of several “systemic” parties that would focus on political agendas rather than personalities. This would protect them, among other things, from irresponsible populism, political kitsch, and election grandstanding, as well as all kinds of adventurists and criminals.

I think that representation should be as broad as possible. Thus, I don’t think it is fair that liberals are not represented in the current Duma. Their position is popular and must, by all means, be present in parliament, if only for the sake of striking a balance with public opinion. The criticism of government bills by the far left alone does not paint a representative picture, making it impossible to assess all aspects of a given problem with due account of the interests of all those concerned.

It is important for people to look at the programs and political agendas of parties rather than the personalities of those at the helm. They should understand that if this party comes to power, this tax will be this amount, the minimum pension will be so many rubles, and so on (it also wouldn't hurt to know where the money is coming from). It is not worth repeating that we need to replace our raw materials economy with a high-tech economy. This is not a political program but a national goal. All parties, along with the government, are unanimous in making statements to this effect. A program means, for instance, explaining to business, which has no mass stake in modernization, that it should invest in technology rather than foreign sports clubs. This is quite realistic, but it is also clearly understood that government plans must be offered through adequate democratic institutions and market incentives rather than at gunpoint.

The role of parliament is likely to undergo a gradual transformation in the future. It is quite possible that its importance in the formation of government and executive bodies will grow – even as the reverse trend becomes more pronounced in Europe, where we still lag behind.

It goes without saying that parliament must consolidate its controlling function and expand its practice of inquiries and other forms of influence over the executive branch.

However, I’d like to return to the issue of professionalism. I think that deputies will become more professional in time. This is a global rather than Russian trend. In Europe, each time there is an election the proportion of new MPs stands at 20% -30% on average, whereas in Russia that figure is almost 50%. In practical terms, this means a big influx of newcomers who have to learn the ABCs of legislative work. Renewal is good in many respects – it reduces stagnation and helps involve more people in politics – but it does not promote the professionalism of the deputy corps and contributes to the importance of the bureaucracy (legislative technocrats) rather than the politicians.

For example, I’d like to cite the work of the Russian delegation in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), which I’ve headed for years. It is much easier to work with those who have taken part in PACE meetings over many years and who know how things are run, regardless of their political affiliation. It takes newcomers a long time to get used to legislative commonplaces that are practically foreign to many Russians. But I’m very glad that so many people have amassed this experience and can now understand the value of taking part in PACE. Those who have worked there would never question the country’s involvement in this “incomprehensible anti-Russian institution.”

I’d like to say a few words about another trend. The realities of the information era are bound to affect the development of the parliamentary system. The world has encountered the phenomenon of “Facebook revolutions.” Internet voting and referendums and electronic (open) governments are becoming standard practice.

Obviously, these trends will only continue, and government officials must promptly react to them by creating channels for feedback and a mechanism for effective public control over various aspects of government at all levels.

It is important to work seriously on both the technical and legislative sides of the matter today so as not to play catch-up later. Otherwise, instead of involving an active segment of civil society in resolving government issues, we will see counterproductive flash mobs or the paid demonstrations of agencies hired to promote someone’s interests or block “objectionable” projects. Future “electronic citizens” must acquire a number of rights requiring protection. Only in this case will their voices promote their own interests and those of the state as a whole.

I’m confident that this form of governance is very close to Russians as a kind of information era “Novgorod veche.” Any local internet forum that discusses the problems pertinent to a particular region (housing and utilities, gardens, schools, roads, etc.) is a kind of a veche. It is only necessary to ensure that such discussions reach government ears by creating the mechanisms for processing them, along with feedback and guaranteed responses to initiatives and inquiries. Internet activists may form a serious personnel reserve for political parties, local self-government, and other branches of power if they display interest in new ideas and personalities.

This is the kind of the future we must consider today. Far from a utopia, public participation in running state affairs online is a likely route for the development of the political system. Even now, we are discussing the prospect of long-distance work rather than the current office model. There are functioning systems for long-distance education and internet trade. The state services portal has proven useful and must be expanded. I think that as a representative body, parliament should be a trailblazer in this respect, but so far, it is lagging behind executive and local bodies, which is not the way it should be.

It is clear that not everyone has access to the Internet. However, I believe that there is a technical solution to this issue and that the state should provide help in this respect. It is possible to install terminals in outpatient clinics, post and Sberbank offices, etc. People should be able to use government network resources and exercise rights to free public communications no different than when they call the police or an ambulance.

I think this would demonstrate the government’s higher trust in its people and, by the same token, make public procedures less time consuming by closing the gap between citizen and official. Our parliament holds its future in its own hands. That future depends on its ability to meet the challenges and demands of the public and the times. Therefore, any large-scale discussion of these issues can only be welcomed. Every experience, including our own centuries-long history, requires our attention at the very least. And, more optimistically, it can and should be used to shape the future of Russian statehood.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.