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By Sergei Shelin

Money instead of power
Parties upheld their right to "black cash" and now they are going to subsist on it

The New Times, September 2001

The law "On Political Parties" has passed the second decisive reading in parliament. The boldness manifested by the deputies showed both to the people and to the Kremlin that when it gets to epoch-making decisions, our Duma ceases to be a "pocket" one.

At least, it became clear that if it is ever interested in anybody's pockets, they are not necessarily the Kremlin's. Despite the remonstrance of the official speaker of the president, general Kotenkov, party lobbyists (at least, in this round) defended the article in the new bill on "black cash", that is, asserted the right of the parties to receive donations in ready money.

The intended tightening of control over the parties was relaxed in one more point. At the suggestion of the Yabloko deputies, it was decided that the party activities would not be supervised by the Prosecutor General's Office as had been originally planned. It would be the responsibility of the Department of Justice, which, according to the general opinion, is not so unfeeling.

Not only that. The deputies passed an amendment aimed at increasing party dignity, but not in the least interfering with the replenishment of the party treasuries. The state support of the parties which get at least 3 percent of the votes in the general elections and 12 chairs in the Duma will no longer be directly designated by such an impolite phrase as "state financing". From now on this crude phrase is palliated by the tactful clarification that the state money only makes up for the expenses incurred by the parties during election campaigns.

All that combined apparently indicates that even within the framework of our political system which critics reprovingly describe as "guided democracy", politicians are not afraid to argue with the supreme power and can successfully uphold the points they consider fundamental and vital. It remains to take a closer look at those points.

As many as 261 deputies voted "yes" (the pro-Kremlin "league of four" plus Yabloko). It is noteworthy that the members of Yabloko, whose leader often describes Putin's regime as "a corporate state", turned out to be the only force outside the official camp which supported the law guarding solely corporate interests.

A fundamental compromise regarding a new party law was reached at the end of the previous year and was based on the following agreement. The Kremlin temporarily puts off its plan to build a "two or three party system" as soon as possible, while the group of parties represented in today's Duma sacrifices the parties which are not represented in the Duma in exchange for preservation and consolidation of their current status.

As to hundreds of sham parties, their disappearance is not only in the interests of the Duma but also of society, which is sick and tired of their tommy-rot. It is a pity though that regional political associations will also be deprived of their "party" status. This is not a wise move, since it will be impossible to remove the tenacious ones from politics anyway.

But it was only incidentally that the parties of this interesting Kremlin-party dispute touched on a most important and main point they became thoroughly engrossed in discussing the burning issue of "black cash". That is the problem of party influence on executive power. To put it more precisely, the problem is that such an influence is completely lacking today.

Some parties may say that their members or sympathizers hold administrative offices, but none of them can boast of the fact that their programmes or the wishes of their elective bodies are more important to those officials than the guidelines of their bosses. Therefore the clause protecting officials from these kind of "party" influences appears an absolutely superfluous precaution.

The experiments of the 90s with "party" governments first democratic and then leftist seem to be ancient history and are almost completely forgotten. The "party" governors (mostly communists) elected in many places have long forgotten about their accountability to their own parties and are completely lost amidst the masses of nomenklatura.

Normal, not nominal, parties declare certain management principles. Society in general, but nobody individually, is virtually interested in the administrative decisions being taken not in the secret clash of clannish interests, but rather in accordance with distinctly and publicly proclaimed principles. Common people, following the established tradition, are keeping silent for the time being. As for the administrative circles, nobody there really needs the "partization" of power today.

In the eyes of the lower and middle bureaucracy, the "party" regime appears a burdensome restriction of liberty. The Kremlin, so long as it has any time to tackle the issues of party organization, perceives this challenge as the expansion and improvement of Unity, a solely auxiliary, tame and subordinate body. As for the bureaucrats of functioning Duma parties, including those "in opposition", they feel too comfortable in their parliamentary apartments and too fearful of political responsibility to fight in earnest for power and influence, though sometimes they complain of oppression.

True, SPS (The Union of the Right-wing Forces), revived just the other day, claims to be a party of a new type, talks about its "own" wing in the government, promises to enter the regions and even predicts its own victory in the coming presidential elections.

The community of parliamentary parties has got its cash and is going to subsist on it now. It is possible to live both merrily and affluently in this way, but only given that the neatly cleaned and comfortable political arena won't be suddenly flooded by some uninvited, unplanned and mass movements.

The New Times, September 2001

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