Russian Duma moves to dismantle managed democracy

By bne IntelliNews February 29, 2012

Graham Stack in Kyiv -

Russia's state Duma passed a political reform package on February 29 that, if made into law, will dismantle key features of the system of "managed democracy," namely current restrictions on the registration of political parties and presidential powers to appoint and dismiss regional governors.

Outgoing president Dmitry Medvedev may have left the best to last. With a mind to his legacy, the man whom many see as a spineless patsy of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has apparently come good on his word - given during his final state-of-the-nation address on December 22 - to reintroduce democratic elements to Russia's political system.

In his address, Medvedev called for a return to direct elections of regional governors and lower thresholds for setting up political parties - striking a blow at two pillars of the system established by Vladimir Putin during his first innings as president that ran between 2000 and 2008. Both of Medvedev's proposals now look to be on a fast track into law, meaning that Putin 2.0 could find himself faced with a rapidly changing political landscape as he retakes the Kremlin.

The first reading of a reform package voted through by parliament on February 29 contained both of Medvedev's proposals in full. It outlines a return to direct elections of regional governors - i.e. converting the country to full-blown federalism - and a loosening of the requirements to establish political parties, dropping the number of members required for registration from the current 50,000 to just 500.

The measures effectively reverse changes made to Russia's political system in 2004 that, together with tight media control, established the "managed democracy" system. Medvedev already saw his reform lowering the threshold for entry to the Duma from 7% of the vote to the European standard of 5% become law in November.

Every parliamentary faction voted in favour of the latest proposals, despite the fact that the reforms will likely undermine their strangehold on political power. Apart from the four parliamentary parties - United Russia, the communist KPRF, the nationalist LDPR, and A Just Russia - all of which tend to support the Kremlin on major issues, select members of the extra-parliamentary opposition - Vladimir Ryzhkov, Sergei Udaltsov, and Sergei Mitrokhin - also took part in the debate.

A number of issues are outstanding going into the committee stage and could still allow for watering down of the draft. In particular, this involves the details attached to a possible "presidential filter" on regional elections, i.e. some form of presidential approval of candidates, as well as the power to dismiss governors. Putin has said in the past that this is necessary to prevent separatists or criminals coming to power. This is the most likely area where Putin, as incoming president, will see his power to directly run the country significantly reduced if the proposals go through in their current form.

Other outstanding issues include permission to create election blocks, important for small parties to achieve political clout, as well as a possible upwards revision of the registration threshold. With the bill apparently being fast-tracked through parliament for adoption in the spring, it could start influencing regional politics as early as this autumn's election cycle, with major elections set for mid-October.

A second legislative package in the pipeline envisages amending the procedures for the Duma elections in a way that would prevent a single party achieving the sort of domination currently enjoyed by the pro-Putin United Russia. "The fate of that legislation is crucial, as it will have a significant influence on the evolution of Russia's political field during the next political cycle," write VTB analysts.

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