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Russia Watch: Analysis and Commentary
(John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University),
no.9, January 2003;
Johnson's Russia List, no.7314, September 6, 2003
The Sin of Party-Building in Russia
Alexander N. Domrin
For background on this article see the following pdf files:
Watch, January 2003
Russian Election Watch, February 2004
Fifteen years after creation of the first non-Communist proto parties (Democratic
Union, «Pamyatí», etc.) and twelve years after formation of
the Democratic Platform in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union that
triggered the collapse of Communist hegemony in the USSR, political parties
as a new social and political phenomenon in Russia are passing through
an all-embracing crisis.
The 1990s witnessed an epidemic of party-building in Russia. Several hundred parties have appeared and vanished from the Russian political arena without trace. The existence of 199 officially registered political parties and movements as of July 2001 can be explained by several factors, but public necessity is not one of these factors. In fact, many (if not most) of these parties can be considered «sofa parties» (when all of its actual members can sit on one sofa) and exist only on paper. Vitaly Tretyakov, former editor-in-chief of Nezavisimaya gazeta (NG), was absolutely correct when he publicly questioned how many peasants Yuri Chernichenko, the founder of the Peasants Party of Russia, had seen since registration of his party in 1991 (see Tretyakovís speech at the «Ten Years of Modern Russian Parliamentarism: Results and Perspectives» roundtable (held in Moscow on 16 May 2000)). It would be appropriate to ask similar questions of many other heads of Russian «parties» and «movements».
Votes and signatures of «dead souls» are easily bought in Russia - not only during electoral campaigns. Western observers make a common mistake when they call Galina Starovoitova, a long-time activist in the Democratic Choice of Russia movement, a «Russian presidential candidate» in 1996. She was never registered by the Central Election Commission as a presidential candidate because a random examination of signatures presented by Starovoitova for her registration showed that half of them were made by the same hand. Foreign sympathisers of Starovoitova never admitted the obvious and prefer to say that she was «kept off the Presidential ballot in 1996 for technical reasons». (Harley Balzer, Johnsonís Russia List, # 2489, November 24, 1998).
It has also become a tendency for criminals and corrupt businessmen to fund fly-by-night parties that carry them into parliament and buy them the immunity from prosecution that comes with a seat in the State Duma. This happened with Sergei Mavrodi, founder of the notorious MMM pyramid scheme and chairman of the Peopleís Capital Party, who was elected to the State Duma in October 1994 while being held in detention; now at large. Boris Berezovskyís recent romance with the Liberal Party of Russia is another example of this phenomenon: in this case, a robber baron hiding in England used a «political party» as a proxy tool and weapon against the Russian government. A «principal position» of «democrats» in Liberal Russia who fired Berezovsky as soon as he stopped financing the party hardly improved the Russian publicís attitude towards parties in general or Liberal Russia in particular.
Indeed, numerous opinion polls show that political parties is the least trusted institution in the country. In 1997, six years after adoption of the first Law on Political Parties, only one percent of respondents in a nationwide survey declared complete trust in them, with 4 percent trusting parties «to a certain extent», and 76 percent expressing complete distrust of political parties and movements.
Four years later, the average citizen expressed distrust of seven out of 10 key institutions of Russian society: with political parties as the least trusted (7 percent) and courts and the armed forces as the most trusted institutions in the country (at 40 percent and 62 percent, respectively).
The Institute of Legislation and Comparative Lawís 2000 report «Attitude of Population to Federal Laws and Bodies of State Power» indicates that since 1989, Russian peopleís trust in the federal legislature has shrunk from 88 percent (during the time of the USSR Supreme Soviet, which originally didnít have any parliamentary factions) to 4.3 percent (at present, when the State Duma has factions representing various parties across the whole political spectrum in the country).
A remarkable ROMIRís survey «Value Change and the Survival of Democracy in Russia (1995-2000)», indicates that 0.7 percent of respondents were «members» of political parties and organizations, while only 0.3 percent were «activists» in 2000. These figures are miserable enough by themselves, but they are even lower than the figures from 1995: 2 percent and 1 percent, respectively. Official statistics substantiate ROMIRís findings: today fewer than 1 million people - less than one percent of the Russian population - belong to political parties.
The recent (and much publicized) study prepared by the Information for Democracy Foundation (INDEM) shows that Russians consider political parties not only as the least trusted institutions in the country but the most corrupt institutions as well. It is difficult to argue against this perception.
The adoption of a new Law on Political Parties (signed by President Putin on July 11, 2001) is a significant legislative measure aimed, among other things, at reducing the quantity of «parties» in the country. By August 2002 the number of newly registered parties did not exceed 23. However, this law has not accomplished a general sanitation of the party scene in Russia.
Party-building and party politics is still within the realm of Russian elites. As for the Russian people, they do not trust political parties and do not believe that their involvement in «party activities» can change anything.
Itís quite understandable that Western governments will continue financial support to their favourite parties in Russia (Union of Rightist Forces, Yabloko, etc.). According to the General Accounting Office, in 1992-97 only two American programs in Russia - of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and International Republican Institute (IRI) - received $17.4 million in US AID grants to «help reformist political parties strengthen their organizational structures and their role in elections». (See GAOís report Promoting Democracy. Progress Report on U.S. Democratic Development Assistance to Russia (Washington, U.S. General Accounting Office, February 1996), p.37). In reality Western support for Russian political parties will have little or nothing to do with «strengthening democracy in Russia» since political parties can hardly be characterized as a democratic element of todayís Russian society.
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