Election's Funeral


The article in English is a treacherous thing. It can transform an innocent statement into a political proclamation. Let’s take, for example, the following sentence: ‘On the 4th of March 2012, Russia will be electing a president’ and change it just a little, almost unnoticeably: ‘On the 4th of March 2012, Russia will be electing the president’. A whole new world of meanings has appeared in what had seemed a mere statement of fact.

Yesterday Dmitry Medvedev announced that he would not run for a second term in the presidential election and blessed Vladimir Putin for the job. That’s basically it. Public politics end here. Medvedev’s reluctant submission means that Putin will automatically become Russia’s next president and is likely to stay in office for the next 12 years.

In one of his most extraordinary poems Thomas Hardy wrote, somewhere between 1908 and 1910:

And by contagious throbs of thought
Or latent knowledge that within me lay
And had already stirred me, I was wrought
To consciousness of sorrow even as they.

The poet imagined himself attending God’s funeral and seeing a macabre procession carrying a ‘strange mystic form’ to Its, or His, last rest. Today, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Russian Constitution, we are witnessing the end of political competition and rotation of power in this country - the very heart of institutional change that attended the demolition of the Soviet Union. Russia has gone back to where it was two decades ago. Because if only one man and one party dominate political life, then how is Russia any different from the Soviet Union?

The governors were the first to go. In 2004, direct elections of regional leaders were cancelled. Few now remember that in 1996 the Constitutional Court, the only body allowed to decipher the main law of the state, ruled that governors cannot be appointed by local legislative assemblies but must be elected by the people. Now, governors are appointed by the President and approved by local lawmakers. It is hard to believe that just a few years ago the regions were a real political force. In 1999 they were an inch from promoting their candidate Yevgeny Primakov into the presidency.

Next the State Duma, the lower chamber of the Russian Parliament, was put under the full control of the Kremlin. New rules were introduced which banned independent candidates from running in single-mandate districts and made opposition parties disappear. Parliament was stifled and now, as the Duma’s speaker Boris Gryzlov famously said, it is 'not a place for discussion’.

The Federation Council of Russia, the upper chamber of Parliament, was created as a representative body of local authorities. Initially, one senator was elected from the regional legislature and the other by its executive branch.

With Vladimir Putin’s accession to power the upper house was transformed into a billionaires’ club – its members have only a remote link with the regions they are supposed to represent. A good example is Ludmila Narusova, widow of the first governor of St.Petersburg Anatoliy Sobchak and a friend of Vladimir Putin. Ludmila Narusova is senator of the Republic of Tyva, a tiny region somewhere in Siberia, a place she has never even visited.

Today any significant figure in Russian politics depends on the president. Even the judges of the Constitutional Court do not elect their chairman – by all means an excessive measure because judges are appointed by the Kremlin.

When Dmitry Medvedev decided to send Valentina Matvienko, then governor of Saint-Petersburg, to the speaker of the Federation Council a few months ago – something that should be far outside of his power (she should have gone through local elections and then, in the Federation Council) – it was done quickly and with appalling disregard to law and the electorate.

This is startling. Valentina Matvienko could have been elected properly. There was no need to be so demonstratively ignorant about the letter of law.

Likewise, Vladimir Putin is no doubt the most popular politician in Russia. He can stay in power and let someone else exist in politics. But he, with the help of the acquiescent Medvedev, decided to wipe out any competition. Why? Doesn’t Russia need the institution?



Today, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Russian Constitution, we are observing how political competition and rotation of power, the very heart of the institutional change that attended the demolition of the Soviet Union, turn into a farce.