July 8, 2011
The state Duma passed this week in its first of three readings a bill that will reduce the election threshold needed to get into parliament from the current 7% to 5%, the approval of which says a lot about the Dmitry Medvedev-Vladimir Putin duo's plans for politics.
The bill was submitted to the Russian parliament's lower house by President Dmitry Medvedev. First and foremost, it shows the Kremlin is getting ready to loosen its hold on political power and civil society. In effect, it has conceded the fact that the people are tired and want more say over how the country is run. The Kremlin is also preparing to cede more power to genuine opposition groups. This strongly suggests that in future elections the Kremlin will be satisfied with a simple majority.
But not in the parliamentary elections set for December – the new bill won't come into effect until the following Duma elections. This means the Kremlin (ie. Prime Minister Putin) intends to go for a constitutional majority in the upcoming elections. But we knew that already thanks to the PM's move to set up a new alliance in an effort to revitalize the party of power's appeal to the electorate, as it becomes increasingly obvious that United Russia is bankrupt as a political force.
This bill also strongly suggests that Medvedev will stay on as president. This bill could only pass the Duma with Putin's approval, as the PM is fully in control of the parliament. Thus, the decision to pass this bill vindicates bne's belief that Putin intends to introduce more political freedom and gradually ease Russia towards something that looks more like a parliamentary democracy – but to do this slowly.
Both Putin and Medvedev have said explicitly that they want to avoid the mistake that Gorbachev made: he introduced political freedoms first, then tried to push through economic reforms, which led to the collapse of the system. Putin wants to do the economic reforms first and once he has build a stable and prosperous society, only then will he introduce the political freedoms.
This is one of the reasons he is pushing for increased home ownership so hard, as people who own property don't make good rebels. On July 6, he called on Sberbank to reduce interest rates to 8% and these two pieces of news are linked to the same goal.
Too far off
The news that Medvedev has ordered the bar on entry to the Russian parliament to be lowered is a major signal of the duo's future plans for politics in Russia, but this event has passed off with almost no comment. Easing control over politics (albeit in a very limited fashion) doesn't fit with the authoritarian stereotype that Putin's Russia has been branded with.
Political freedoms are coming and there is an increasing amount of noise that suggests as soon as the presidential elections in March are passed, we will see several new big reforms that will attempt to pick up the pace of change significantly.
But all said and done what is so disappointing about this news is that it will only apply to the 2015 elections. That means the opposition will be left in the wildness for another four years.
It's a mistake, because the population is becoming increasingly disillusioned. The middle aged are already drawing parallels with the Brezhnev era, the middle class are frustrated with their political impotence and the young are leaving, complaining that the tight control the state has over the system means that social mobility has been destroyed. If you are not born into the privileged elite, it is extremely difficult to enter for anyone of modest origins.
Putin is betting that if he can repeat his trick of producing fast growth and material gain (incomes increase 14-fold while he was president), then this will be enough to satisfy the voters. But as people become wealthier, they also become increasingly political, or at least demand more say in the political process. If they don't get it, they will eventually revolt. Russia is already prosperous – the time to ease control over the political system is now.