Façade Collapsing? Russian Parliamentary Elections in Perspective

New Annex Building of the Parliament · 04.12.2007 14:00 - 14:00

At the time of the seminar, Russia was preparing for both legislative and presidential elections but the choices seemed to have been already made. The FIIA seminar series ”Choices made: Russia the rest will have to deal with” examined the characteristics of this emerging system which calls for competitiveness in the economic field while rooting out competition in the political sphere.
The first seminar on 4 December analyzed the results of the Duma elections in the context of the evolving Russian political system. A briefing paper on this topic was released at the seminar.

Summary of the Seminar

On December 4th, the Finnish Institute of International Affair organised first of its four follow-up seminars on the Russian elections at the Finnish Parliament. Dr Sinikukka Saari was the main speaker of the seminar, the Under-Secretary of State Markus Lyra gave a comment speech and the event was chaired by Dr Arkady Moshes.

Dr Arkady Moshes opened the event by stating that no major changes will be seen in Russia after the March presidential elections. He continued to argue that Russia has already made its choices and the current political structures will remain intact. President Vladimir Putin is at the centre of the Russian political system and nothing can be decided or implemented without his approval. It is clear that Mr Putin will remain in power after March even if we do not know in what way.

At the beginning of Mr Putin’s tenure Russia was a weak state. There was neither vertical of power, nor was there any democracy in place. However, Dr Moshes, argued that the political institutions worked. Currently, the situation has changed totally. Dr Moshes stated that these  Duma elections marked the end of façade democracy and there should no positive moods about Russia, but it is time to take a look at the reality.

On the December 2nd elections, four different parties passed the seven percent threshold to gain seats in the State Duma. These parties are United Russia with outstanding majority of the votes, A Just Russia, Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and the Communist Party of Russian Federation, which is, in fact, the only opposition party. There are neither liberal democratic parties represented in the Duma nor are there any independent representatives.

Dr Sinikukka Saari started her presentation by mentioning that it has often been suggested that there is not much to say about the Russian Duma elections, as it has all been so predictable. However, she challenged this view and attempt to put the elections in a larger perspective in order to start an analytical debate about Russia. According to Dr Saari, three arguments can be made. Firstly, the Duma elections can be seen as wider symptom of non-democratic political system. Secondly, the current system in Russia has been institutionalized and very hard to change from outside or from within. Finally, this political system is not stable in the long run.

Putin’s Plan
What will Mr Putin do after the March presidential elections is puzzling question to many people both in Russia and abroad. Sinikukka Saari projected three different trajectories for Mr Putin’s future. The first option is that Mr Putin could become Prime Minister after the presidential elections and he could replace a pro-Kremlin president after his/her resignation. The second option is that Mr Putin could become Prime Minister before his term ends as a president and after resignation of the main candidate, Mr Putin could become the first candidate and thus become a president. The third option is Mr Putin will serve a longer time as a Prime Minister and hold the true power as a “national leader” of the state. This was considered to be the most dangerous and undemocratic option.

Popularity does not equal democracy
According to a recent survey done in Russia, half of the Russian population thinks that Russia needs democracy. At the same time, it is controversial that there is very little resistance to the undemocratic rule in Russia. Dr Saari argued that even if Mr Putin enjoys popularity in Russia and would stay in power, it does not make him democratic. She continued to argue that President Putin’s decision to stay in power and make himself irreplaceable sows the seeds of future instability.

Dr Saari suggested that the European Union should be realistic, open and honest in its assessment of the Russian political developments. Moreover, the EU should be firm, consistent and coherent in its cooperation with Russia. The EU should emphasize contact between the Russian and the Western European people. Also, the EU should refrain from empty rhetoric and attempt to find consensus amongst the EU states.

No changes in policies
Markus Lyra in his commentary speech agreed to a large extent with Dr Saari. Markus Lyra expects that the Russian foreign, economic and domestic policies will follow the same line as before and therefore no changes are anticipated. Mr Lyra listed three points that make the Duma election results more understandable.  Firstly, he pointed out that in Russia there is a tendency to re-elect the leaders. Secondly, as long as the oil and gas sectors remain lucrative and the economy will grow, Putin will be popular. Finally, compared with unpredictable and weak President Yeltsin, the Russians see Mr. Putin as a powerful figure.

Question on Leadership
In the Q&A session, the question of leadership was discussed. It was suggested that during President Yeltsin’s tenure leadership was in crisis and no strong leadership was provided, consequently, President Putin’s popularity may lay in the strong leadership and order. Dr Moshes answered to this question by pointing out that Mr Putin is indeed charismatic leader; however, during his second term 2004-2008, Mr Putin has concentrated more into consolidation of his power and ensuring the succession.

Party system under changes
There was a question about the Russian party system that has undergone many changes and now it seems that the United Russia party has become an extension of authorities and if there are any possibilities for civic action within the party. Dr Saari in her answer was quite pessimistic about the possibilities of Russia having a meaningful pluralistic party system. Director Raimo Väyrynen continued with a question about the unity of the United Russia party. He suggested that if the party grows to be big enough, this could cause discontent among the backbenchers, like in Britain. Sinikukka Saari partly agreed with Raimo Väyrynen, but pointed out that Russian system is different from the British one and difference in opinion is not easily tolerated within the partyand this pushes everyone to obedience.

Sinikukka Saari’s Briefing Paper presented at the seminar can be found here:


A Collapsing Façade - The Russian Duma Election in Perspective