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"Russia’s Party System is still at an early stage of development." (R Hill) - Discuss

18 November 1999

 Commentators on Russia frequently highlight the fluidity of its political party system. Sakwa, for example, declares that "The party-political system remains the weakest link in the new state." Commentators take its weakness as a given.

On the other hand, some of the main political contenders are likely to be re-elected to the Duma in large numbers in December for the third time, ensuring their parliamentary survival for over a decade. Given this, is it really fair to characterise Russia as having an underdeveloped party system? Is it not perhaps time to give it credit for reaching political adolescence?

In this essay, I will first set out the features which characterise a mature party system, before examining how far Russia’s party system matches these conditions. I will discuss why it has reached the stage of development it has, before looking at a number of scenarios for the future.

What are the characteristics of a ‘mature’ democracy?

Defining what is meant by the terms ‘normal’ and ‘mature’ in politics is a subject fraught with difficulties. Every society has its own political norms, shaped by cultural, economic, ethnic, and geographical factors. Enormous differences exist between the ‘mature’ democracies with ‘mature’ party systems in, let us say, the United States, Australia and Israel. However, since the days of Gorbachëv, becoming more ‘European’ has been the key aim of many Russian politicians. Therefore I will use the western European democracies as my ‘normative’ model, not due to cultural arrogance, but because so many Russians see western Europe as embodying ‘normality’ in democracy. Moreover most democracies which have been successful outside Europe over longer periods, whether in developed or developing countries, share many characteristics with western European democracies.

The characteristics most commonly associated with a mature west European democracy are largely concerned with stability – stable parties, with stable voter alignments and cores of solid support, are important. Also important is the requirement for at least some of the public to participate in the system through voting, and for some through joining and becoming activists in political parties. Support for the state and democratic order is perhaps the most vital requirement of the mature party system – without it a Weimar Republic situation can develop. Implicit in this is support of the ‘loyal opposition’ concept, i.e. that parties accept that maintenance of the democratic order is more important than their own political advantage.

Some commentators, e.g. McAuley, see the existence of an agreed political community as being vital for a mature democracy. However, I would argue that some of the world’s most enduring party systems – e.g. Northern Ireland, Quebec, India – are so enduring precisely because of the lack of agreement on the nature of the ‘community’.

Does Russia meet these criteria?

Political parties in Russia are still highly unstable bodies. While all democratic post-Communist countries have endured a degree of party system instability, its level in Russia is exceptional. In Viségrad countries, the ‘party survival rate’ as calculated by Golosov was between 72% and 90%, while in Russia it was only 53%. It is not only the early parties which have passed into insignificance, but some of those who were major players during the 5th Duma - e.g. Russia’s Choice.

Russian parties are often not really parties at all, but loose coalitions of electoral convenience. McAuley’s survey of Duma and Federal Council candidates in 1995 found that only a quarter would be guided by their party group in voting on an issue which had not come up during the election campaign. Even parties with comparatively clear policy positions were often formed through personal networks rather than political principle. Yabloko’s 1995 State Duma lists in St. Petersburg, for example, were drawn up through Yavlinskii and Bodyrev writing to former associates in the city. This lack of a common glue encourages parties to split over issues of personality. Indeed, politicians in the regions often have significantly different views from the official line in Moscow, further hindering the development of coherent party identities.

Russian parties often do not take "into account actually existing realities rather than an ideologically idealised version of what should be." While this can be attributed to seventy years of Communist régimes who behaved similarly, it is still a sign of political immaturity among the élites.

While parties may be unstable, the electorate is also extremely volatile. Here, too, Russia lags far behind other post-Communist countries in political development. Wyman notes that electoral volatility in Russia between 1993 and 1995 was twice that in the Viségrad countries in the same period, with only the Communists managing to retain over half of their 1993 voters in 1995.

The electorate are largely indifferent to direct political participation. McAuley’s study of regional politics found that local party organisations, from St. Petersburg to Yakutsk, had tiny memberships. McAllister and White cite 1991 survey data showing that only 2% of the population claimed to be members of political parties. While that is no longer exceptionally low by western European standards, this survey took place in 1991, when the Soviet Union was intact and along with it much of the CPSU’s organisational base. In their turn, few parties see regional organisation as important - while democratic parties in St. Petersburg were given offices after the 1991 coup, these remained largely empty.

At the same time it would be wrong to say that the electorate are disinterested in politics. The turnout in the 1995 Sobranie elections, at 64.4% - was much higher than the sub-40% normally achieved by similar elections in the United States: while the turnouts for Russian presidential elections have always been healthy. Russians may be discontented with their politicians, but they have not switched off entirely.

In the party system there is also cause for optimism. The 1995 elections distinguished the ‘big four’ parties in parliament from a host of also-rans. Each of the parties represented one of the main traditions in Russian politics - communism, nationalism, liberalism and centrism. There is still a large degree of instability, but these four parties, with the possible exception of the LDPR, seem certain to retain a sizeable parliamentary contingent at the next elections.

The creation of Fatherland-All Russia is a particularly interesting development. It has the potential to be a boon for stability in the Russian political system, with many regional politicians brought into a party for the first time. However, as its name suggests, it is an ad hoc coalition in much the same pattern as other parties, the Communists excepted. Sometimes it seems that little unites it bar mistrust of Yeltsin. However, should it be able to hold together for the next few years, it could be a vital force for stability in the future.

In conclusion, while Russia is still at a comparatively early stage of political development, it has come a long way since 1990, albeit at a slower pace than some other post-Communist countries. I would endorse Yavlinskii’s comments that the 1995 Duma elections showed that Russia had moved beyond the "infantile stage of multi-partyism". It would be reasonable to describe Russia’s party system as an ‘adolescent’ one. The results of December’s Duma elections will be a key augury as to whether Russia’s system is moving towards maturity or will remain stuck in adolescence.

Why does Russia not meet these criteria?

The rôle of the President is the single most cited cause for the weakness of Russian political parties. Sakwa cites similarities between contemporary Russian and early American experiences of democracy, and notes that "Presidential systems in the best of circumstances tend to inhibit the emergence of party government." He regards the decision of Yeltsin to remain outside politics in 1991 rather than making Demrossiya the government party fatal in this regard. Yeltsin has always seen himself as above party politics, and has never seen himself in anyway bound to the leaderships of NDR, or earlier of Russia’s Choice.

Urban and Gel’man develop this idea further. Political society has been largely unable to control the state in post-Communist Russia. State power is largely vested in presidential appointees and regional administrative chiefs, who in many cases are old regional Party bosses, and over whom political society has very little control.

It is important, however, not to overstate the rôle that presidentially dominated constitutional arrangements play in dampening the development of a party system. Monticone notes that "The legislature of the Russian Federation is weak compared to its president just as the legislature of France is weak compared to its president." Yet France has a stable and well-developed party system. Even given the unique rôle Yeltsin has played in Russian constitutional development, one must look beyond the dominance of the presidency for the full explanation of the weakness of Russia’s party system.

The weakness of civil society, and the poor links between it and political society, has weakened the rôle of political parties. If the primary rôle of political parties is to act as the mediator between the state and civil society, then many politicians have been unwilling to engage with civil society due to their discomfort with their representative function. Interest groups in return do not see political parties as useful vehicles to advance their respective causes, preferring to lobby the state directly. The difficulties of ensuring day to day survival has ensured that many Russians have as little time to devote to cultural or social groups as they have for political parties. Moreover, political activity in Russia has its physical dangers, even for grassroots activists.

Many commentators see this weakness of civil society as part of Russian culture, that democracy and Russia do not mix. DeBardeleben, while not going as far as this, does stress the continuities between Tsarist, Soviet and post-Communist Russian culture. However, I would agree with Sakwa who believes that the explosion of social and political activity in the glasnost era forever banishes the myth that Russians are not interested in democracy.

Wyman uses opinion poll data to assert that Russia’s democratic culture is "at best deeply mixed". He notes that political activism has dwindled since the late-Communist era, that attitudes towards minorities are often poor, and that significant numbers support the idea of a ‘strong leader’. However, some of these polls showed that attitudes on these issues were not significantly different from those in the United States. The belief in a ‘strong leader’ is a key feature of post-Communism in many societies. Moreover, there are as many pluses in Russia’s political culture as minuses. There is a definite commitment to basic freedoms of speech, press and association. Moreover, the electorate has often shown a degree of sophistication that few give it credit for. For example the electorate did not respond to the blatant pro-Yeltsin bias of the media during the 1993 Duma election campaign, nor did the lavish campaign spending of Russia’s Choice sway them unduly. On balance, I would argue that Russia’s culture has been a key factor in the retention of democracy despite all of the country’s problems, rather than a hindrance to democracy.

Democracy has however suffered due to the lack of a culture of compromise among politicians. Sakwa speaks of – "the ‘irreconcilable’ style of politics that came to predominate at this time [the post-coup period]." However this is a key feature of Holmes’ theory of general post-Communism, and he sees it as a consequence of the lack of "an appreciation that there can and should be conflicting views…[which can] be reconciled through negotiation and bargaining": a consequence of the over-centralisation of power in Communist societies. Moreover, other post-Communist countries have overcome similar cultural difficulties to build stable régimes in a stable democracy.

McAuley argues that the ‘flat’ social structure of Russian society, a consequence of the atomisation of society in the Communist era, is a major hindrance to the development of a mature multi-party system. In her view the constituency on whose behalf reform was carried out, viz. the middle class, did not yet exist. However, most other commentators disagree with her. DeBardeleben notes the distinctive loci of support different parties enjoy among different age, gender, educational and regional constituencies. Sakwa claims a process has begun in which the fragmentation of the old élite, the regeneration of politics from below and the regions, and the emerging structuredness of Russia’s political space was creating a situation where competition between genuinely different political programmes was possible. Moreover, survey data cited by Wyman shows that the party most clearly identified with reform, Yabloko, has its strongest support among the younger, the more urban, and the better educated electorate, in other words those emerging as the middle class, refuting McAuley’s claim. There is evidence of Russian voting behaviour reflecting social cleavages, albeit not as pronounced as in the West.

However the history of democratisation in Russia is, in my view, the largest single factor contributing to the nature of the Russian party system today. The Communist Party’s leadership delayed recognition of opposition parties until after the RSFSR elections of March 1990 had passed, denying the nascent political parties a chance to gain democratic legitimacy. This may have proved a shrewd tactical move, but it had deeper ramifications for the future of Russian democracy. In Lipset and Rokkan’s famous analysis, political parties represent the primary social cleavages at the time of the first mass elections in a given country. However in Russia, "The onset of electoral politics preceded the emergence of a multi-party system, something that distorted the whole process of party formation." As a consequence, "Party formation in Russia … banked steeply away from the politics of interest", and towards the politics of personality. In the period between the coup of 1991 and the Duma elections of 1993, parties were trapped in a vacuum where they could neither seek electoral legitimacy nor any meaningful rôle in the new system.

Russia’s path to multi-partyism was dealt a fatal blow in its nascent stages from which it has never recovered. While some commentators, such as Golosov, argue that Russia’s ‘freezing’ election was in 1993, I would argue that it has yet to happen, until it does, Russia’s politics will not move beyond adolescence.

Conclusions – The future of the Russian Party System

If the theory of post-Communism is valid, then Russia’s current state must logically be a transient one; Holmes sees temporality as one of the key components of post-Communism. Therefore one must ask what future is indicated for the Russian party system by its present, with all the consequences that holds for the whole of Russian society.

There are a number of reasons why a return to authoritarianism cannot be ruled out. Sakwa notes that today’s bubbling pot of party formation, fragmentation and destruction resembles that of the 1905-17 period. A further similarity is the divorce of political parties from realpolitik and their obsession with obscure ideological questions. Moreover, while today’s state may not be as malignant as its Tsarist and Bolshevik predecessors were, it too holds a near monopoly of power which squeezes the life out of both political and civil society. DeBardeleben further notes that Russia is witnessing a high level of direct political action. This may provoke the government and the ‘loyal opposition’ to defend the system through authoritarianism. More worrying is the continuing blatant pro-government bias of state television, the single most important channel of influence in a country as vast as Russia. As Hughes notes, "Russian broadcasting itself…represented a structural hindrance to the emergence of a political consensus on the notion of an ‘independent’ journalistic state."

However, there is much evidence for hope. As noted above, there is strong evidence that the party system is slowly beginning to stabilise, that democratic values are more present in Russia than is generally credited, and that there is a definite, if weak, stratification of society which will enable parties to develop different interests. The 1995 election marked a clear watershed here, and even McAuley concedes that the atomisation of the electorate was not absolute in that election.

Democracy is not necessarily secure. While the symbols of state power in Russia have changed, the institutions have done so rather less, and the personalities barely at all. McAuley notes that by 1996, in all six of the region she studied, the chief administrator had been part of the old Party or Soviet bureaucracy. Perhaps more importantly, Yeltsin’s roots are also firmly in the old system. While some commentators minimise the importance of individuals in determining political realities, the fact remains that Yeltsin and most of his advisors, who wield state power, were raised on the Soviet system. The emergence of a new, younger, élite, whose political experiences have been shaped in post-Communist Russia, is a vital prerequisite to the securing of a stable political order.

There is, however, another possible direction for the Russian party system; and that direction, should it be taken would be as discomforting to the West as it is to Russia. Sakwa notes that in many senses Russian society is even more fragmented than the ‘post-industrial’ societies of the West. In that sense Russian society can be described as post-modernism taken to its logical conclusion. In this scenario, it is possible that most Russian parties’ organisational structures are essentially ‘ideal types’ of the ‘post-modern’ west European party, with low membership, high levels of fragmentation and communication with the electorate primarily through the electronic media. It is possible then that today’s Russian politics represents not a transitional phase on the road to a more ‘Western’ future. Rather, Russia’s present might be a prophecy of the political future of Western democracies. That must be a cause of concern to all who support the concept of representative democracy.

Russia’s party system stands now at a crossroads on the way to maturity. Any attempt to predict whether it will develop into a cornerstone of a stable, democratic Russia, or whether its continuing ‘adolescence’ will allow the forces of authoritarianism to re-establish themselves is ultimately an exercise in crystal ball gazing. However, while Russians may be discontented with the present order, there is little evidence that they wish to return to the old one. Therefore, the only logical direction for the development of Russian party politics is forward. Whether forward to liberal democracy or post-modern anarchy remains unclear.


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