The Volodin Effect: Primaries Against Glass Bead Game

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Boris Mezhuev

Political scholar

The new policymakers who started developing Russia’s internal policy in 2012, tend to refer to Western political experience, in particular, and, above all, US experience. France serves as a role model in some cases as well. These references to foreign experience occasionally draw criticism from various parties. They point to the fact that the situation may differ fundamentally and Russia cannot be contrasted with European and transatlantic partners.

Still Russia has something noticeable in common with the United States and France. They are two presidential democratic republics with a fairly stable political system. Should one seek a combination of sovereignty, democracy and stability, they should primarily consider French and American institutions.

Not every French or American idea catches on and becomes deeply rooted in the Russian soil. Take, for example, vice-presidency. It seems to be ill-fated. In their turn, primaries, or preliminary vote for candidates of the ruling party, seem to have taken root. People have become familiarized with the names of deputies. Apart from preliminary voting itself, it is an opportunity to vote for the favorite deputy in a single-mandate constituency at the September general elections which also has a role to play. As a result, we have a semi-American/semi-French electoral system.

Although it was Vladimir Putin who initiated and encouraged the reform, it was Vyacheslav Volodin who put it into practice.

Russia’s personality-oriented political culture will surely make people treat Volodin’s reform which established primaries, the mixed parliamentary system, and the All-Russia People’s Front, solely as a personal achievement of the man who spared no effort to set up these political institutions.

Still we must bear in mind that democracy rests on stable and transparent rules. An innovation cannot be short-lived. No one should have a right to declare primaries’ results invalid or cancel the elections merely because they are not satisfied with the outcome. The primaries for the ruling party should become customary, and this practice must be followed as consistently as if it were a law. Naturally, in Russia as in any new democracy, it is very difficult to implement something once and for all, or to introduce something which will last, say, centuries. But apart from freedom and equality, which are traditionally associated with democracy, the latter also implies stable and clear rules and transparent procedures.

Alas, Vladislav Surkov’s vision of democracy was different. He counted too much on the players which by any stretch of the imagination were not meant to have a happily-ever-after. They included numerous liberal parties, spoilers, or various movements such as “Nashi”, “Piggies against”, and “StopHam”. With the People’s Front and, for example, the “Immortal regiment” it is unclear what for they needed those three groups? Which extraordinary task did they fulfil?

The spin glass bead game has been replaced with intricate and evidently troublesome institution-building, which will be successful only if it becomes consistent and systematic regardless of various economic or political fluctuations.

“Realpolitik” principle of today which underlies internal policy management implies respect for diverse political activities and traditions. Most new “rules of the game” underwent tests at the regional elections of 2012, 2013, and 2014. Time has come to put the mixed system of State Duma elections to the test in 2016.

Russian political culture puts forward rather rigorous but largely conflicting demands on the current executives. They involve responsiveness and responsibility which implies initiative. Both accountability and statesmanship are desirable in such a political culture.

The logic of the system and its dynamics over the recent years testify to the ever more effective self-adaptation mechanisms of political institutions. They were established in accordance with specific rules and standards. Then they began evolving and recurring in accordance with the standards determined by the very system.

As a result, a new institutional design is taking shape in compliance with the generally agreed rules and without considerable efforts or “palace intrigues and coups”. The institutional design, which Russian politics is typified by nowadays, can be perceived as adaptable, since its key arrangements are capable of self-instructing, changing and advancing.

Jürgen Habermas argues that society is bound to reform and develop. To evaluate political processes he suggests the deliberative procedure and decision-making as some kind of a role model. As Habermas puts it, discourse “allows scope for popular influence on the historical process by mutual consent, with individuals being shapers of this process”. Consequently, mutual understanding leads to a discursively achieved and motivated agreement of individuals, and discourse itself serves as an instrument to explain problem-focused major demands reflected in opinions and norms.

The strategy of the incumbent government seeks to develop a flexible and responsive system which at the same time could be coherent, inherently stable and mature. The system should reconcile the necessary stability and consistency with the flexibility and ability to instantly respond to the changing challenges.

In addition, one should point out that public opinion thoroughly approves of the viable system operating in the interests of citizens and Russia as a single entity rather than of the system itself.

This article was first published on Um+

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