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After mass protests Russian authorities propose liberal political reform

December 23, 2011, 16:17 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

The intention to carry out a political reform Russian President Dmitry Medvedev declared in his annual address to the Federal Assembly on Thursday is seen by most politicians and experts as the authorities’ reaction to mass protests, although the Kremlin argues that it had been preparing them for quite a long time. The reform can replace the system of "managed democracy," formed during the presidency of Vladimir Putin, with a system of political competition. After Putin’s return to the presidential seat the authorities may waive the former hard-line management style and permit "flirtation with competition," analysts say.
President Dmitry Medvedev in his last message to the Federal Assembly formulated a set of measures to effect a political reform, fight corruption and develop a mechanism of feedback in relations with society. The political reform is confined to the following steps: the restoration of direct gubernatorial elections, simplification of procedures for the registration of political parties, cancellation of the collection of signatures before the elections of the State Duma and the regional legislative assemblies, changes to the principles of forming the State Duma, reduction in the number of signatures required for the registration of presidential candidates, and an increase in the representation of parties in election commissions. That is, in many respects it is a return to the situation which was changed by President Putin in the early 2000s for the sake of strengthening the vertical of chain of command and of consolidating stability in society.
The main political initiative of the presidential address was the restoration of the elections of governors by popular vote in regions. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said the same on December 15, but he suggested a presidential filter for the selection of presidential candidates from political parties. Neither the speaker of the State Duma, Sergei Naryshkin, who coordinated the work on the presidential message as head of the Kremlin staff, nor presidential aide Arkady Dvorkovich could explain what the final mechanism of gubernatorial elections would be like - the bill is still being finalized, but both assured that the new procedure can begin to be applied already in 2012.
The second initiative voiced in the presidential message was the idea of simplifying the registration of parties: "At the request of 500 people, representing at least 50% of the regions of the country." In other words, for the emergence of a new political force ten supporters are to be recruited in 50 regions. Dvorkovich believes that this development may cause a rapid upsurge in the political activity in Russia, given the number of participants in social networks.
Most vague-looking is the promise to revive the elections of some State Duma deputies from single-mandate constituencies. Until 2007 the 450 seats in the State Duma were split equally – 225 were occupied by the deputies elected on the lists of parties that had cleared the 7-percent qualification hurdle, and 225 by legislators who won the elections in single-mandate constituencies. The president promised "to introduce proportional representation from 225 constituencies to strengthen legislators’ links with the electorate."
What sort of scheme will be proposed remains unclear. The former head of the presidential staff, newly appointed State Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin, who supervised the drafting of the message, said that the nomination of single-mandate candidates by parties was one of the options. "There may be others," he said.
The bills for the simplified registration of parties and the abolition of the collection of signatures have already been presented to the State Duma, while others still need elaboration and will be discussed further in various quarters, including parliament.
One is aimed at easing the requirements for the establishment and operation of political parties. It stipulates that from January 1, 2013, a political party must have at least 500 members, representing no less than 50% of the regions of the country. The requirement for a minimum number of members of regional branches is dropped. For comparison - now the party must have at least 45,000 members, it must have regional offices with at least 450 members each in more than half of the territories of the Russian Federation, and in the other - no less than 200.
The second bill concerns the abolition of the need for collecting the signatures of voters before the elections to the State Duma or regional legislative assemblies by parties not represented in the respective parliaments. At present, to participate in the State Duma elections non-parliamentary parties are to collect at least 150 thousand signatures in their support.
Although those dissatisfied with the proposed reforms in the camp of the opposition - both systemic and non-systemic – are many, they agree that some of the reforms look quite revolutionary. The experts have mixed feelings about the reform plan. On the one hand, it looks like general liberalization and impending replacement of the "managed democracy" with political competition. On the other, they say, the reform fits in well with the desire of the authorities to stabilize the existing system, and at the same time to persuade those who took to the streets to protest to calm down.
"I do not think that these proposals were formulated only under the influence of recent events. They were formulated under the influence of everything - the fact that society is changing," the head of the presidential council for the development of civil society, Mikhail Fedotov, said, when asked by the daily Kommersant if the political and anti-corruption initiatives of the president were a direct result of mass protests.
"Someone will say that all that was proposed under the pressure of the Bolotnaya square rally. This is not so,” said Sergei Naryshkin. “Part of the proposals have been worked on since last summer and discussed previously at the level of the president and prime minister."
"But it seems that the initiatives have long been developed with a view to a new configuration of power and the political system, which is to last the next twelve years," the daily quotes political scientist and historian Sergei Chernyakhovsky as saying. The expert believes that after the return of Vladimir Putin to the presidential office the government may abandon the old rigid style of management and permit "flirtation with competition."
Nikolai Petrov, of the Carnegie Center, who is quoted by the daily Vedomosti, says that the Kremlin has realized that the system that Putin built, although it was workable at some point, is too primitive, that society can no longer be kept on the short leash. "But Putin and his entourage did not dare let the leash loose too much. Six months ago such measures would have been relevant, but now the situation is developing too fast: nobody cares who will be elected five or seven years from now, all are concerned about the coming elections."
"The system has already changed,” the first deputy head of the presidential staff, Vladislav Surkov, told the daily Izvestia. “This is a fait accompli - see the results of the elections to the Duma, see the rally in Bolotnaya Square, see the discussions in the world web, see the prime minister’s call-in show on December 15, see the president's annual message. Now these changes are to be formalized legally and technically (polling stations equipped with webcams and electronic ballot boxes, etc.). "
"The best part of our society, or rather, the most productive part of it, demands respect for itself,” says the Kremlin's chief political strategist. In his view, "its opinion cannot be arrogantly dismissed." "And it is very good that that opinion was taken into account, that there has been a benevolent response from the authorities. Yielding to the reasonable requirements of the active part of society is not a forced maneuver of the authorities, but its constitutional obligation and duty."


MOSCOW, December 23