|Tatyana Stanovaya, «Putin in the Duma, A New Format for the Russian Parliament”, Politkom.ru 14 Jul 16
The very fact that Vladimir Putin came to the final meeting of the spring session of the State Duma merits more attention than the content of his speech: The head of state’s speech was pretty routine and partly devious. On the other hand, the visit itself is of a rather exceptional nature: In the whole time that President Putin has been in office this was his first farewell to an outgoing parliament (not counting his speech in 2011, but at that time he came in the capacity of premier).
And it is understandable: The people’s trust in institutions of power — the State Duma and the political parties — remains very low, or rather negative. In this context Putin’s appearance is interesting not for what he said that but for the fact that he came at all.
The first thing worth mentioning is how the presidential visits fits precisely into the rhetoric and arguments that Vyacheslav Volodin, the deputy chief of the Presidential Staff, is employing in preparing the coming Duma elections. Volodin is diligently attempting to depict the coming campaign as competitive, open, and legitimate. A great deal has already been invested in this, and within the framework of this logic we have seen the revolutionary replacement of the head of the Central Electoral Commission, the cancellation of the elections in Barvikha, and the dismissal of the head of the Moscow Oblast Electoral Commission. We can also include the United Russia primaries, the strengthening of the All-Russia People’s Front, the confrontation between the regime party and the corps of governors, and the slightly less robust confrontation between the regime party and «Front representatives.»
Everything is on the move, or rather being set in motion. The regime is preparing in advance for a period of turbulence, calculating that amortization will help it to skip across the deepest ruts and potholes of hypothetical political upheavals. Whether or not they happen is a separate issue, but the lesson of late 2011 has been learned. As an assiduous student of his time, Putin came to the State Duma in the context of specifically this paradigm — to give his personal blessing to Volodin’s scenario for conducting the elections.
Second, there is the problem of the value of a Duma seat. The current Duma has been roundly badmouthed for its readiness to approve everything that the authorities might propose. What depends on a deputy today? He is subject to faction discipline, and a faction operates within a narrow band of what is permissible. So narrow that it is virtually impossible to see any difference in the lawmaking behavior of the regime party and the parliamentary opposition. Everything has been carefully structured and carefully organized. In such a situation the political value of a seat (we are not talking about its material or status value) is plummeting toward zero.
However, such a low level of political influence on the part of deputies is to a large extent enabling Kremlin to enliven intra-establishment political life. It does not matter even if something goes wrong and not the right people end up in the new Duma, it will always be possible to bring them into line. The arsenal of instruments for influencing deputies created in recent years will make it possible to quickly and painlessly put the malcontents in their place. The practice of expelling dissenters from the lower chamber of parliament has already been finely honed.
The result is a paradox: The struggle for parliamentary seats is intensifying, guarantees of stability for the status of notional Duma heavyweights are shrinking, and a parliamentary seat appears to no longer mean anything. And it is clear that a presidential visit was needed: His visit is a sign of the top political caste’s special attention toward the lowest caste, an attempt to add luster to jaded parliamentary mandates, to illuminate them with his political legitimacy. It is nothing but part of the opening ceremony in the campaign to fight for the right to become Putin’s mainstay for the next five years.
Yet another feature stems from this: Hitherto Putin had preferred to extend his legitimacy primarily to the regime party. He would meet with the CPRF [Communist Party of the Russian Federation], Just Russia, and the LDPR [Liberal Democratic Party of Russia] as the establishment opposition. And this was one of the reasons why the president did not make similar speeches in the Duma previously: These are our people, while those, although constructive, are nevertheless opponents, as Putin is fond of describing them.
Crimea eroded these conditionalities. The entire Duma is now totally Putin’s. And the future Duma will be not less but even more Putin’s, and it does not matter specifically how the seats will be distributed among «Front representatives,» Communists, United Russia representatives, or anybody else. And this is also one of the reasons why the Kremlin can allow itself to play at competition in the current conditions: Every winner will become ours whatever happens.
Putin also came to the State Duma in order to raise the stakes: The elections fit into the geopolitical framework of Russian-Western confrontation. The president is assiduously and clearly drawing parallels with 1939: a West trying to contain Russia and reluctant to see the real threat where it actually exists (the role of Nazism is today played by terrorism), an uncomprehending Russia extending the hand of friendship, and the Duma as a solid mainstay of the state in troubled times (Putin thanks it outright for its «resolute,» «consolidated,» and «significant» support and understanding). Such conditions virtually leave parliament with no choice: Prewar times require the backburnering of checks and balances.
The common cause is more important than political differences — this is yet another important concept of the president’s. «Continuity,» «consolidation,» and «cohesion» are key terms in Putin’s speech, which thereby becomes a political task — replicating the current parliament in it its next incarnation, albeit with new faces. Deputies come and go, but the State Duma as a most important element in the state mechanism remains the same. Putin made a political advance order: The new Duma must be no worse than the old one — authoritative, independent, and high-quality — this was precisely how the president talked about the outgoing Duma.
Putin’s speech is profoundly conservative in terms of content and insidiously liberal in terms of rhetoric. He is initiating the recruitment of deputies for the State Duma as for a party of his supporters, where competition for the right to be a true Putinite is encouraged but an influx of «irresponsible» forces — a favorite term of the Russian regime that makes it possible to draw a line between its own acceptable political forces and real rivals for power — is ruled out.
An ideal Duma — unity among all factions, no interparty differences of opinion, and cohesion — is something that Putin talks virtually outright about. And this is the main dilemma of the current political moment: enlivening of the system in terms of form and mothballing in terms of content. Both processes cannot go on simultaneously for very long: In the end either the form will start to determine the content, gradually liberalizing the system, or the content will nullify all the tentative going through the motions of a thaw. And here the elections may turn out to be one of the decisive moments in the development of the system — something that the regime too has apparently grasped.