Opinion Page, November 12, 1995


Gregory Freidin

In their rush to rally around the flag of Mr. Grigory Yavlinsky's party when Russia's Central Election Commission attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to disqualify it for the upcoming parliamentary elections, Western news media appear to have passed over in silence the rumors that the same draconian measures had been applied -- this time successfully -- to a little known party with a long name, Progress and Legality: Democratic Unified Center. The reason, according to a recent report in Russia's largest-circulation weekly, Argumenty i Fakty, was that its acronym spelled an expletive -- a more zesty and apocalyptic Russian equivalent of the English DEEP S***. Indeed, circus atmosphere permeates the election coverage, whether on TV or print media, with the Russian disciples of Art Buchwald, Russell Baker, and Mel Brooks assigned the election stories.

Their subjects oblige: from the Party of Beer Lovers, who collected the signatures needed to qualify for the elections as they were treating their constituents to ale, to the Liberal-Democratic party of Russia of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, which, along with its other well-known antics, promises a "30% increase in the standard of living of ordinary Russians" resulting from the planned "revival of the military-industrial complex alone." "How did you get this figure, why 30%, why not 35%?" asked a puzzled reporter, but then, abashed by his own seriousness, he promptly answered himself: "Yeah, why ever not!"

Television displays a similar penchant for zroing in on the funniest comedy routines in Russia's new political theater. On November 8, the premier evening news program, Novosti, showed the Chairman of the Central Election Commission, Nikolay Ryabov, a typical dour unperturbable apparatchik, having a real tantrum, throwing pencils and berating the country's Constitutional Court. "It is impossible to follow the law when the country's supreme judicial authority orders you to break it!," he screached before the camera, nashing his teeth, as he was conducting formal proceedings, forced on him by the Constitutional Court. The supreme judicial body had just ruled that he would have to qualify the more visible parties among those that had failed -- as had indeed Yavlinsky's Yabloko and Vladimir Rutskoi's Great Power -- to follow proper election law procedures.

Whence, one may ask, is this circus? The structural reason for it lies in the key principle of Russia's election law that sets aside half of the State Duma's 450 seats to parties and the other half to individual candidates (a voter would vote for a party and for a particular candidate running in the district). To qualify for the elections, the party must present to the electorate a roster of candidates and collect 200,000 signatures from different constituencies (no more than 7% of the signatures must come from a single district). The framers of the electoral law pursued a worthy goal: to encourage the growth of parties and coalitions, to see them emerge, not just in the country's few cosmopolitan centers, but in the provinces as well.

The result so far has been the opposite, a phenomenon that social scientists call unanticipated consequences: increasing fragmentation and factionalism. Feeding this social calamity is the country's open and boisterous electronic media whose effect is further amplified by the Russians' strong propensity for theater. What has emerged, instead of a culture of strong parties and coalition politics, is the culture of political demagoguery on a colossal scale.

Party building is hard work, taking a long time, projecting a political leadership image, especially if the natural talent is present, requires an incomparably smaller expenditure of time and effort, if not money. But there are incentives for going choosing the easy way. To be represented in the State Duma, a party must win, at least, 5% of the votes cast in the elections, and of course, the people representing it will be the top ranked names on the party's slate: 12 names, if the party wins only 5% and proportionately more, if the number of votes is greater. It is not surprising that every potentially viable politician in Russia would like to see his name in the top dozen of a given party list, thereby increasing her chances to become an MP.

Nor is it surprising to see many politicians jumping from the roster of one party to another, if the other party offers them a better chance to climb up to the top of the slate. It was as a consequences of such party-hopping after the requisite signatures had been collected that has prompted the Central Election Commission to try and disqualify several parties. Ryabov's concern was not political favoritism, but truth in advertising for political parties who collect signatures with one set of candidates on the roster but go into elections with a different one. Be that as it may, the Constitutional Court ruled that the show must go on.

Come December 17, a Russian citizen, one of those who will, after all, venture to the polling station, will be confronted with a bewildering choice of forty (currently registered) political parties competing for the Duma party seats and between 12 and 20 single mandate candidates vying for the remaining 225 prizes. To compound the problem further, only 25% of the eligible voters have to show up at the polls for the elections to be declared valid. Nor are there provisions for run-off elections, which means, both theoretically and practically, that a candidate in a crowded district may be a winner even if she gets less than 10% of the votes and more than 50% of votes (by some estimates as much as 70%) may be cast for parties that would not clear the 5% barrier, necessary for their representation in the Duma. Such apprehensions have been expressed by a number of responsible observers, among the most visible of the them, the Chairman of the Constitutional Court, Vladimir Tumanov. Is it possible to classify this electoral system as a form of representative democracy? The answer: only in a very attenuated sense, no more, perhaps, than the Russian communism may be classified as a subspecies of Western social democracy. Indeed, as far as the probable outcome is concerned, what it resembles, rather, is the old Soviet system for dispensing privilege.

The amorphousness and fragmentation of the political landscape on the eve of the parliamentary election makes the Communist Party of Russia stand out from the crowd. Paradoxically, stripped of its monopoly on power, its ranks radically thinned out due to its reputation as well as the availability of ample economic opportunity in Russia's burgeoning private sector, CPR (no pun intended) is, perhaps, the only party in Russia in the proper Western sense of the term. Its organization is far flung, its cadres are disciplined, and its constituency devoted enough to march to the polls even if the weather beacons the rest of the electorate to spend the day in the country (as happened in Volgograd in September, where the Communists handily defeated the Army's lunatic fringe in a local elections; no other party fielded candidates in the contest). The only problem for the CPR is that its constituency consists, by and large, of retired people, and even as the odds on favorite, the party is not expected to win more than 12-13% of the party slate vote.

According to recent polls, among the serious political organization, the runners-up are expected to be, on the reformers' side, Yavlinsky's Yabloko with about 8%; on the "nationalist" side, the rather moderate Congress of Russian Communities, headed by Yuri Skokov and General Alexander Lebed, with about 6%; and on the centrist, i.e., governmental side, Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin's party, the bland sounding "Our Home Is Russia," with 5%. Few other parties - among them Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democrats, pro-communist conservative Agrarians, the flip-flop party, Women of Russia, but not Gaidar's Russia's Choice -- are expected to squeak into the Duma.

The coming political crisis, then, is not likely to stem from the communists' "victory at the polls". They will not get enough seats to become the dominant player in the new Duma, a largely powerless body as the Russian Constitution of 1993 defined it. Rather, it is the ever-increasing factionalism of the political life of the country that should give everyone pause. Indeed, a suspicion is spreading among some of the more intelligent Russia watchers both inside and outside the country that the system that has emerged in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse, in particular the Duma electoral system, is dissipating, rather than strengthening, the country's still powerful democratic impulse. The circus atmosphere notwithstanding, the Public Opinion Foundation reported in its recent survey that the issues of "social equity" and "crime," the special code words of the communist party and the nationalist right, are still less of concern to the Russians than democracy's tried and true "rule of law" and "human rights". The longer those Russian politicians who identify with this popular agenda continue to squabble among themselves, the greater the likelihood, to paraphrase the Federalist, that the Russian citizens' "fear of discord and disunion among its counsellors will exceed their apprehension of treachery or incapacity in a single individual." Russia's presidential election is scheduled for June 1996, and those "single indivuduals" whom the Federalist had in mind are standing in the wings. This, then, is the political context against which Boris Yeltsin will be making his decision whether or not to seek the second term.

Copyright (c) 1995 by Gregory Freidin