Conventional wisdom has it that you should judge a person by his or her deeds. It's particularly prudent when you're talking about politicians, since they have a habit of loudly announcing new plans without first accounting for their old ones.
During his address to the Federal Assembly on November 5, President Dmitry Medvedev declared that it was necessary to reform the constitution and, almost immediately, the terms of office of the president and Duma deputies were extended.
It is worth noting that you can count on your fingers the number of people voting against these measures, at either the regional or national level. Across all of Russia, you'd be hard-pressed to come up with even 100 such naysayers, most of them from the ranks of the Communist Party. In the Federation Council, only one brave soul was to be found -- the independent liberal Valentin Zavadnikov.
During his November speech, the president listed 10 other points that he deemed necessary "for further boosting the level and quality of popular representation in government." Shall we take a look at what has been done so far?
Over the last three months, a law has been passed under which the Federation Council will be formed exclusively from deputies of regional and local legislatures. From now on, governors must either plan far enough ahead to get their preferred candidates onto the party lists for regional elections in advance, or else hastily organize a vacancy in the legislature (perhaps through a convenient resignation) and a rigged by-election to install their chosen ones.
On January 24, the Duma -- on the strength of votes from Unified Russia and those stalwart warriors against capital in the Communist Party -- voted to eliminate the use of a campaign deposit to qualify to participate in elections. It turns out that only by gathering signatures can candidates and parties be democratically registered. I was reminded of how back when the authorities disqualified Yabloko from the legislative elections in St. Petersburg by saying the signatures they submitted were bad, hundreds of people showed up in court to confirm that they had signed Yabloko's petitions. But they were turned away unheard.
Of course, submitting an election deposit was not a 100 percent guarantee of being able to participate in an election. Many candidates were given the wrong account numbers; employees of the state-owned Sberbank "accidentally" spoiled the payment forms; or applicants didn't make the deposit on time; or their deposits were simply refused for "technical reasons." But still, it represented at least some sort of chance -- and now that door has been slammed shut in the face of the opposition.
Legal And Other Hurdles
Now the Duma is discussing a bill under which candidates to head regional executive branches will be submitted to the president by parties that won the most recent legislative elections in the region. Judging from the text of the bill, it looks like the governors will now be selected on the basis of a dialogue between the president and the head of Unified Russia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
In its bid to construct a unified vertical of power, the Kremlin has sent the Duma a bill on simplifying the procedure for removing popularly elected mayors. This wouldn't be done by means of a recall referendum, but simply by a vote of no confidence from regional deputies. The positive side of this initiative, perhaps, will be a reduction in the number of fabricated criminal cases of the type that have heretofore been used to remove the unwanted.
New measures on "attracting representatives of nongovernmental organizations into the legislative process" are expected soon. But the Duma will retain the right to ignore the conclusions of any public expertise.
The Duma is also awaiting a law on the rotation of party leaders. The government's interference in party matters will force the Communist Party and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) to move their eternal leaders into supra-party organs. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and LDPR head Vladimir Zhirinovsky will take on roles similar to that of Vladimir Putin, who is the head of Unified Russia's Supreme Council but not a member of the party. But what will that change?
The authorities have not reduced the 50,000-member requirement for political parties to be officially registered, although there have been rumblings from the corridors of power that a new figure of 35,000-40,000 might be in the offing. They have not reduced the number of signatures parties must gather in order to participate in elections, although main Kremlin ideologue Vladislav Surkov has mentioned replacing the current 200,000 with something more like 100,000. The authorities have not reduced the requirement that parties secure at least 7 percent of the vote in order to get seats in the State Duma, which would be necessary for small parties to get even some symbolic presence in the legislature.
Less has been said, however, about what is arguably the most important point. Even so-called opposition deputies in the Duma have fallen silent regarding Medvedev's promise to guarantee them access to state television.
During his speech, Medvedev said that "freedom of speech must be ensured by technological innovations." He has made good on this idea by introducing a video blog on his official website -- although it is shamelessly censored as unwelcome viewer comments are systematically deleted.
Toward the end of the 1920s, the head of the All-Union Central Executive Committee of the Soviet Union (and the titular head of state) Mikhail Kalinin ordered agrarian economist Aleksandr Chayanov to prepare a report on possible ways of extending the government's New Economic Policy. After familiarizing himself with this anticrisis text, the head of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin, ordered Kalinin to denounce Chayanov as an "enemy of the people" for decrying the creeping destruction of the village -- which the Father of Nations then proceeded to carry out.
Things haven't gone that far yet, of course. But the current "thaw" in the "tandemocracy" leads me to think that Medvedev is a worthy successor to the labors of Kalinin.
Mikhail Sokolov is a broadcaster for RFE/RL's Russian Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL