Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Grass-Roots Blues

The Kremlin has begun to deal with Russia’s numerous, dwarf-like political parties. Indeed, the situation borders on the ridiculous. Among the 186 registered political parties, there are at least half a dozen "communist" parties, and the same number of "socialist" parties. You can’t even count the "social-democratic," "liberal" and "nationalist" parties. If you look at the register, you will see that the Block of Municipal Housing Workers is still around from the 1995 elections. Sadly, the incomprehensibility and diffusion of our political life precisely reflects the state of our society and the general level of public political consciousness.

Nonetheless, the system of parliamentary parties is fairly stable. Year after year, election after election, the same Gennady Zyuganov, Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Grigory Yavlinsky appear on the ballots. Our Home Is Russia has disappeared, but it was duly replaced by the identical Unity party, and the familiar face of Viktor Chernomyrdin is right where it always was. Likewise, the right-leaning liberals, who in 1995 were called Russia’s Choice, have once again reconstituted themselves as 1999’s Union of Right Forces. Only the centrist Fatherland has no direct antecedents from 1993 and 1995, but its leaders — Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov — can hardly be called newcomers. At the same time, however, the number of candidates to the Duma decreases with each election cycle as fewer people are willing to spend the time and money it takes to compete.

One would think, therefore, that the problem of mini-parties would resolve itself. However, the Kremlin has introduced a new reform that is intended to deprive these parties of their registration status. The official line of the Central Elections Commission is that these tiny parties "are discrediting the very concept of a multiparty system." If the commission has its way, Russia will have nothing but big parties. There will be no local or regional parties, only national ones. Each party will be required to have branches in no fewer than 45 regions, and each branch will have to have no fewer than 100 members and the total party membership must be at least 10,000.

Also, each party will have to re-register annually to reconfirm the number of its branches and members. Participation in elections will be mandatory. If a party misses two successive federal elections, it will be automatically liquidated for "not fulfilling its function." In a nutshell, the Kremlin will now have a score of excellent ways to get rid of annoying political forces without actually banning them.

However, participation in elections — both for parties and for individual citizens — is not an obligation, but a right. The requirement to participate in all federal elections is particularly amusing considering that the government has clearly and repeatedly demonstrated that it is incapable of conducting fair elections. If, for instance, some party boycotts an election to protest the unfair distribution of television broadcast time, the CEC will be able to solve the problem by simply "liquidating" the protesters.

The requirement to re-register annually will guarantee that undesirable political parties will be purged. The system of registering parties only after collecting detailed information about their membership is a gross violation of human rights. The CEC is now essentially demanding that Russian citizens denounce themselves to the government.

Ironically, the reform will not eliminate the problem of "dead souls." Any procedure involving the mass registration of individuals will be prone to abuse. In fact, it is easier for large parties to indulge in these practices, since it is more difficult for the authorities to sort through their documents.

Obviously, the Kremlin’s goal is to simplify its management of the election process. The fewer participants, the easier. Instead of 89 subjects of the federation, we now have seven super-districts. Instead of 186 parties, there will be three or four.

The present Duma has no opposition. Every faction has its own complaints about the Kremlin, but no one has taken the step of offering itself as a true opposition party. Whenever there is a vote on social or economic issues, Unity votes together with Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces. Whenever there are issues of security or bolstering the police state, Unity finds allies among the communists. Since the Kremlin is — as tsarism was before the revolution — essentially a "national-conservative" ideology, this system is perfectly acceptable to it.

Unity will have no problem re-registering. The communists will also pass easily. Fatherland, though, will have trouble. Many regional authorities that supported Fatherland in 1999 will use the re-registration as an opportunity to mend fences with the Kremlin. The new law may finally compel Yavlinsky to combine his party with the Union of Right Forces, despite the distaste of many Yabloko members for Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais.

The Kremlin wants to protect itself from any "popular civic activity." Organizing a party from the ground up is far more difficult. Any such effort must, by definition, start small and locally. And it is such parties that will be immediately stamped out by the new reform. In other words, citizens have been denied the right to form associations except by the initiative and with the consent of the center.

This is President Vladimir Putin’s concept of democracy. There may be a number of parties, but they will all be more or less identical, and they will all be under control.

Boris Kagarlitsky is a Moscow-based sociologist. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.