The Washington commentary on Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Russia is almost universally negative. It need not be.
There is, of course, no question that there were serious flaws in the electoral campaign. The Kremlin ensured that there would be no level playing field and threw its weight and its resources behind United Russia and other pro-government parties. Why this is surprising to anyone is mystifying. Russia is best understood, not as a developing democracy, but in terms of managed pluralism–a place where elections, political alternatives and freedom of the press are “adjusted” by the ruling elite.
But too much of an emphasis on the negative aspects of Kremlin “management” takes away from the reality that Russia today is far more pluralistic and free than it was 15 years ago. And while these elections left much to be desired, there are some potential positive outcomes.
The first is that the power of the Communist party to obstruct or delay the reform agenda in the Duma has been decisively broken. Let us not forget that Communist predominance in the Duma during the 1990s prevented many important reform items–including tax and land codes–from being passed. Vladimir Putin’s administration had some success in steering key reform legislation through the Duma during his first term, but now that United Russia enjoys a clear majority, Putin has the political capital to continue and advance his reform agenda.
And this is the second positive development. For the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, a Russian president now enjoys majority support in the legislature. When the single-mandate results have been tallied, it is likely that Putin will be able to count on the support of up to 60 percent of the deputies. It means that Putin can continue with his reform efforts. And even though that agenda may not have the Washington think-tank seal of approval, it is an agenda designed to fundamentally change Russia. It is very true that Putin’s reform plan is spiritually closer kin to the Russian conservative politician of the last century, Peter Stolypin, or to Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew than to Thomas Jefferson. It places a higher priority on functioning state institutions than civil liberties. But let’s also not rewrite Russia’s recent past: The Yeltsin period, now seen as a golden period of liberty for Russia, was so because the state was weak and corrupt, not because it was liberal.
The third positive outcome is that conditions are now in place for Russia to finally develop “responsible governance”–that is to say, to have the cabinet enjoy the confidence of a majority of the legislature. The Yeltsin experience–of a government that was at odds with the parliament, of an executive branch that had to rely on executive orders to get reforms enacted because it could not pass legislation–crippled Russia’s development. Now, president and parliament are, in theory, on the same page. One hopes that a stable parliamentary majority may induce Putin to begin to use the Duma as more of an alternative and counterweight to the presidential apparatus that his predecessor created to bypass the legislature; this may lead to a more professional parliament as well. (There is precedent for this in Russia’s political history from the late tsarist era, by the way).
These elections are no victory for democracy. But if the end result of Sunday’s elections is to produce further legislative reform and a more accountable government, then it wasn’t a complete loss.