The new State Duma rears its head: A new era in Russian democracy


October 22, 2016 – Fort Russ – 

Ruslan Ostashko, PolitRussia – translated by J. Arnoldski –

When immediately after the elections, I said that we are witnessing a new era of Russian parliamentarism, my optimism might have seemed premature. Today I am ready to repeat these words with even more confidence, as the new Duma convocation is showing in practice just how much the Russian parliament has changed. Over a very short period of time, new deputies and the new speaker of the Duma have made it clear that everything is going to be different than what we’re used to.

Depriving deputies of the possibility to vote by proxy is a symbolic gesture showing society that from now on every deputy is personally responsible for his vote and the decisions he supports. Not a faction, not a party, and not the leaders of a party, but every individual deputy is responsible for what button he pushes when voting and for the consequences of his decisions.

Yet another important symbol is the struggle against absenteeism and the clear efforts by the new speaker to make deputies treat their work seriously, and not as an unpleasant addition to a very nice salary. Such an approach is drawing protest from those politicians who under the red flag brought some of their business sponsors in the Duma. These sponsors did not invest money into a campaign to work on laws in the Duma from 9:00 to 5:00. This means that these deputy sponsors will have to start working on legislation and forget about their own businesses, or they’ll have to leave parliament. 

Society wants deputies to really work and represent the interests of the people in dialogue with the government. The new Duma and its new speaker, Vyacheslav Volodin, are working on fulfilling this public request. In fact, there is a pretty bad joke making its rounds on the Duma sidelines that the death of a deputy is not on the list of 4 possible reasons for a deputy being absent. I like this joke because society wants deputies to work with the same intensity and dedication as voters.

Here’s a concrete example. We’ve all gotten used to the Duma more or less quietly voting on the draft budget prepared by the government. The process of approving the budget in the parliament has become a mere formality, and the government has also gotten used to this. But with the budget for next year, the government will end up with a surprise. 

First of all, the deputies have shown unusual curiosity and made a long list of questions about where state money is going. And now the government, in the face of Minister Siluanov, will have to explain this to disgruntled and very picky Duma deputies. But this is not all. Deputies are already promising to send their proposals for adjusting the budget to the government as soon as they receive comments from the Ministry of Finance. 

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For the first time in many years, we are expecting a real battle over the budget, and one on the side of ordinary citizens whose deputies will squeeze everything they can out of the financial block of the government. And this is good! This is how a parliament should work if it is the supreme representative body of power in our country. Sounds of indignation can already be heard from government lobbyists. But they can handle it.

The new Duma has also actively engaged in parliamentary diplomacy, for which Vladimir Putin called at the first session of the new convocation. Inter-parliamentary diplomacy is a very strong instrument in international politics as it allows our Duma to directly inform the political elites of other countries of Russia’s positions while bypassing filters like biased media and traditional diplomatic channels. 

In fact, the visits to Crimea by Italian and  French deputies that so annoyed official Kiev are also an example of proper and effective inter-parliamentary diplomacy. 

And now the Duma is engaged in another area of this kind with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. We virtually stopped working with PACE after our delegation was deprived of the right to vote. Now Vyacheslav Volodin has stated that the Russian delegation might return to PACE under the condition that it is granted the right to vote and its rights won’t be violated. 

Translated from diplomatic language into English, PACE is faced with a choice: either admit its incompetence and finally sink into oblivion (without Russia’s participation, the existence of PACE makes no sense) or swallow its pride and return the right to vote to the Russian delegation, in effecting spitting on the assembly’s own resolutions which blame Russia for annexing Crimea and aggression against Ukraine. 

Volodin’s operation to force PACE to be democratic has certain chances of being successful especially if we see what hysterical articles the Ukrainian deputies working in PACE are writing upon seeing a strong pro-Russian lobby advocating for the return of the Russian delegation. Ukrainian politicians are equating the Russian delegation’s return to PACE with “the hostage-taking of Europe.” If PACE really does bow down before the Russian parliament’s demands, then I’m afraid that some of them will have heart attacks. 

In just a few weeks of work, the new Duma has managed to surprise us in the good sense of the word, and has done so on all fronts. The Duma is reforming itself, disciplining the government, and forcing PACE to be democratic. Now there is reason to raise the bar of expectations for the new deputies. I think that our parliament will please us like never before, and we should continue to closely monitor this. 

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