* A meeting of the Executive Committee of the Liberal International and the Asian Conference of the Liberal International took place at Guason, Taiwan, on March 4-6, 2004. The conference discussed the urgent problems related to the construction and development of a democratic state. Liberal parties from 35 countries sent their 120 representatives to the conference. Alexander Shishlov, Member of the Federal Bureau of YABLOKO party, Russia, spoke at the conference on YABLOKO’s view of the problems of developing democracy in Russia.
I would like to make some remarks on the issue from viewpoint of the Russian democratic party YABLOKO.
Those of you who remember the Soviet Union may also remember the CPSU – the only political party in the USSR until the late 1980s. This party was part of the totalitarian state machinery: its leading role was established by the Constitution. In the late 1980 perestroika period a lot of political clubs, movements, people’s fronts and other informal organisations emerged: some of them were transformed into political parties.
But the first alternative party officialy recognised by the Soviet authorities was the so-called Liberal Demorcatic Party of Russia headed by well-known extremist Mr. Zhirinovsky. This party had nothing to do with liberalism. It is alleged that the project was actually sponsored by the Soviet secret services, in other words the KGB.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the process of emerging political parties in Russia intensified: hundreds of political NGOs were called political parties, covering all colours of the political landscape from extreme left to extreme right.
But there was no specific legal framework for their activities: there was only a law which stated that civic organisations and political parties did not enjoy any privileges or responsibilities in comparison with other types of NGOs.
Although the election system in Russia since 1993 has stipulated that 50% of the seats in the State Duma should be distributed according to the electoral results for party lists, the structure of the party list was very unstable and changed a lot from one campaign to another.
Historically political parties have been organizationally weak. And people are extremely sceptical about participation in party activities. I suppose this is partly a natural reaction after the 70 year rule of the single communist party. In July 2001 the Law on Political Parties was passed. This law significantly expanded the role played by political parties in the electoral system by simplifying the nomination of candidates by parties at all levels of government, requiring that half the seats in regional legislatures be determined by party-list voting, as in the State Duma.
These laws, in conjunction with the December 2002 Law on Elections of State Duma Deputies, expanded campaign spending limits and the public financing of political parties, shortened the official campaign period, limited the conditions under which candidates could be removed from the ballot, and imposed restrictions on media coverage. An additional effect of the laws was the expansion of the Central Elections Commission's authority over subordinate regional elections commissions.
The law on political parties requires that parties have 10,000 members be registered and function legally, with no fewer than 100 members in most of the country's 89 regions. The law grants political parties a partial monopoly on running candidates for legislative office, creates serious obstacles for the registration of new political parties, and gives the executive branch and General Public Prosecutor’s office broad powers to regulate, investigate and close down parties. Those parties who participated in general election and won more than 2% of the votes are granted some funds from the federal budget, but this amount is quite small and insufficient for real activity. At the moment about 40 political parties are officially registered by the ministry of Justice. The number of political parties an! d electoral blocs in parliamentary elections is decreasing with each campaign: there were 23 party lists in 2003 parliamentary election (compared with over 40 in 1993). Only four of them overcome the 5% limit required to get seats in the Duma.
- “United Russia” - 37,57%;
- Communist Party - 12,61%;
- LDPR (Zhirinovsky) - 11,45%;
- “Homeland” - 9,02%.
I suppose that only one of them can be considered a real political party, with its specific ideology, programme, permanent group of supporters etc. – that is the Communist Party.
“United Russia”, the party at the centre of the Kremlin-engineered majority coalition in parliament, is not a political party in the true sense of the word. Instead of existing to follow a particular set of values, it was established as an instrument to carry out the Kremlin's orders.
The other newcomer “Homeland” is a newly created and unstable coalition, speculating on nationalist and anti-oligarchic moods. Soon after the election there were a series of scandals in the coalition leadership and finally a split.
The main outcome of the last election was the defeat of democratic Yabloko – 4.30% and Union of Right Forces – 3.97%.
The parliamentary elections, held on December 7, were observed by the OSCE, which offered a positive evaluation of the technical conduct of the balloting, but concluded that the overall election process, accompanied by widespread misuse of administrative resources, systematically biased campaign media coverage, and inequitable treatment of political parties, failed to meet OSCE standards. This was the most critical assessment of an election to have been issued by the OSCE since the Russian Federation became an independent country.
The most serious shortcomings concerned the pre-electoral campaign. Although the legal requirements for TV political debates and free time for party candidates to present their views were observed, the government used its increasing influence over the media, particularly the electronic media, to promote favoured candidates in newscasts and other programming, resulting in coverage that was heavily biased in favour of the main government party, United Russia, and other favoured parties, and against opposition parties.
The pro-government forces drew heavily on "administrative" resources, using the power and influence of regional and local officials to maximize media coverage and campaign financing. Insufficient transparency in the post-election period was also a serious concern. The OSCE reported that 14 percent of monitored polling stations failed to provide certified copies of the results to domestic observers representing different political parties.
In December 2003 Yabloko got less than 5% of the votes and lost the parliamentary elections. We got four MPs elected in the constituencies - one of them joined the United Russia faction so now we have only three MPs. Another party considered as democratic – the Union of Right-Wing Forces - also lost. Its future as a democratic party is up in the air now owing to the split in the party leadership.
This is a serious challenge for us and the future of democracy in Russia, especially as in 2007 the limit to enter the Duma will be raised to 7%.
We held a party Congress in December, and the meeting of the party Bureau in February and our strong will is to keep the party alive, develop and in particular cooperate with all democratic forces and prepare for the next general elections in 2007. Our next party national congress is scheduled for the summer. Since December more than 7,000 people joined Yabloko: we now have about 80 000 members. We faced a shortfall in funds, we have to decrease our staff but we will definitely continue our job. We consider the recent appointment of our deputy party leader Mr. Lukin as Human Rights Commissioner in Russian Federation to be a very positive step, and we are going to use different employment opportunities for our professionals to increase party influence.
The main question Yabloko discussed after the December elections was our position in the presidential campaign. I suppose this is the main question for every real political party. But as Russia goes more and more back to a single-party state, some parties maintain a very exotic position. For example, the so-called Party of Life nominated its own candidate Mr. Mironov, Chairman of Federation Council of Russian Federation, who declared that he supported the candidacy of the acting President and was not participating in the campaign, to win but to be next to the President and help him.
Today we hold the 4th presidential campaign in Russia. I suppose this is the first time when we witness such a low public interest in the campaign. Nobody doubts that President Putin will be reelected, the only formal question remains - what will be the turnout. Once again everybody knows that there will be more than 50% turnout, as the local bureaucracy does all it can to achieve this. Sometimes it looks funny, for instance in St. Petersburg the chief of the district administration sent a letter to the heads of local condominiums (responsible f! or housing and not voting) demanding at least 70% turnout of the residents hinting that it would meet their future needs depending of actual turnout.
But the low public interest and expected turnout does not mean that people are happy with their lives and the President’s policy. It reflects fatigue and indifference. People do not believe that their votes and this particular election will change their lives. Many of them realize that this is not a fair election.
Two weeks ago we had a meeting of the Bureau of the Federal Council of the Russian Democratic Party YABLOKO, where we discussed our position before voting day and confirmed the forecast provided in December by the party Congress: the elections have been transformed into political farce. YABLOKO considers it to impossible to participate in another imitation of democratic procedures. We proceed from the premise that people see the growing lack of freedom in the country, lack of equality of participants in pseudo-democratic elections, bankruptcy and even comic nature of candidates. We believe that in these circumstances non-participation in presidential electionsrepresents a natural form of protest for people with democratic values. YABLOKO will co! ntinue the work of the party on creating a broad democratic coalition, and participate in regional and local elections. The creation of cells of political influence in regional and local legislative and executive authorities is a priority in the movement towards a really free and democratic society. What led us to take such a decision – not to participate (which is definitely unusual for the political party)?
To have democratic elections, at least three preconditions must be met: a relatively independent judicial system, in other words an independent referee for the elections. There have to be independent national media which will transmit your point of view to the public. And there has to be an opportunity for independent financing. Otherwise one cannot speak about free and fair elections at all. Today a presidential candidate cannot obtain either financing, appear on TV or win a legal suit without the permission of the Presidential Administration.
We do not support the candidacy of Vladimir Putin for President. We believe that no steps were taken over the past four years to guide the country from the deadlock of oligarchic quasi-capitalism or resolve the key problems of society like education, security and the armed forces. The arbitrary rule of the authorities and police has even intensified.
At a recent meeting with his supporters at Moscow University President Putin presented his view of his first term of office and his plans for the next four years. As a liberal I agree with almost everything he said. There was even a particular chapter in his speech devoted to liberal values. In fact President cited word by word the statements of Yabloko issued three years earlier, when we stated at our party congress that in the 21st century there was no way to prosperity for a country which does not provide its citizens with human rights, freedom of information and media. We said that people who are manipulated and are not free cannot create amodern and competitive economy. Now we hear exactly the same words from President Putin and we are grateful for this. But ! the problem is that his policy is destroying the freedom of information, the independent media, fair elections, political competition.
We have a system where a single centre of power controls everything - the media, the secret services, business, the courts, parliament, the elections. There was a remarkable case in January - The President appointed the prime minister to chair the Anti-Corruption Commission. That sums up the essence of our system. It is like appointing a fox to watch over the hen house. And it is not a question that this particular fox is good or bad – simply the fox likes to eat chicken.
We may say we in Russia are going back to soviet times, to a single-party authoritarian state. Unfortunately. So what are the prospects, is there still a chance for Russia to become a real democratic succesful and predictable country?
The times have changed, and the world is different now. Some processes that used to take decades now happen within years or months. I think there will be some major changes over the next five years. Even now, if somebody is seriously talking of Russia being stable – I cannot agree. We are rather stably unpredictable. And the last appointment of new Prime Minister is another proof.
The environment for our liberal job is not friendly. Russia has neither an independent parliament nor independent national mass media. Electoral procedures and results are heavily influenced by the government machine. The secret services and law enforcement agencies are exempt from public control. The judicial system is not really independent and serves as an administrative instrument, using selective arbitrary application of the law.
But I still believe that we can become a real democracy. I think it depends not on the results of the presidential election, but on the development of an emerging civil society in Russia. It depends on those people who understand that democracy and human rights are essential for their own security and prosperity. It depends on our children who are going to schools and universities – and this is one of the reasons for Yabl! oko party and myself personally to consider education as one of the priorities in our activities.
And certainly the role of liberal political party which may aggregate, articulate and represent the interests of those who share liberal values becomes even more important.
YABLOKO as a member of Liberal International
Liberal International Conference* Guason, Taiwan. March 4-6, 2004