Tomorrow will likely be a red-letter day in Russian politics, as the dominant Unified Russia party convenes its national congress. Party leader Vladimir Putin will, of course, be on hand, and President Dmitry Medvedev is expected to address the delegates. Officially, the centerpiece of the congress will be the adoption of the "Strategy-2020" plan that lays out the party's vision for Russia over the next 12 years.
Much has been made of the fact that the Kremlin is rapidly pushing through a constitutional amendment that will extend the presidential term to six years. If the amendment is quickly adopted and a preterm election is held, the next president's two six-year terms would cover the entire "Strategy-2020" period.
Less attention has been paid to the other amendment being ram-rodded -- the one that would extend the term for Duma deputies from four years to five. To some, the move was viewed as a sop to get the deputies to go along with the presidential extension. I argued here that the two moves together also have the significant benefit of reducing the frequency with which the Kremlin has to carry out its embarrassingly manipulated elections -- and the frequency with which Putin and other officials have to stand up in public and say with a straight face that democracy has triumphed again.
But the Duma term extension seems to be part of a broader drive in Russia to concentrate political power inside Unified Russia, which already controls regional legislatures in addition to its constitutional majority in the Duma. Unified Russia has other powers as well, powers that Putin -- as party leader -- controls:
"He'll have the State Duma as a resource, since Unified Russia has a majority there," sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya told RFE/RL last April. "He will have control over the Federation Council, where they also have a majority. He will have control over regional parliaments, because there they have a majority as well. These regional parliaments confirm the governors. His administrative resources will increase significantly."
In his November 5 address to the nation, Medvedev proposed other measures that solidify this grip. First, he said regional governors should be nominated by the "majority party" in the regional legislature, instead of by the president's regional envoys. Without mentioning that Unified Russia is the "majority party" across the country, Medvedev argued this change would be more democratic and improve accountability.
He proposed reforming the Federation Council (again!) so that it would be made up of people who had been elected to regional legislatures and local government organs. Unified Russia's grip on politics in the regions is secure enough to ensure that it would control this chamber as well under such a scheme.
Medvedev also proposed a vague initiative to "expand the constitutional rights of the Federal Assembly" to enable the Duma to exercise "controlling functions" over the executive branch. So far, the Kremlin has been busy with the term extensions and hasn't fleshed out this potentially explosive innovation, beyond what Medvedev said in the speech: that the government would be obligated to report to the Duma annually on its activity and to answer questions from lawmakers. It will be worth watching how this idea plays out concretely, since it could be anything from a banal statement to a complete shifting of the formal locus of power in Russia.
In a commentary on gazeta.ru today, analyst Vladimir Milov wonders why the Kremlin is devoting so much time to power restructuring just months after Medvedev took office and the transition model seemed settled. "The 2007-08 elections demonstrated that in the current circumstances, the authorities are in a position to carry out any elections with whatever result they want," Milov writes. He argues that the current scramble to rearrange things -- in the face of the possibility of popular discontent brought on by the effects of the financial crisis -- "emphasizes how rigid and incapable of dealing with changing circumstances the current Russian rulers are."
The Unified Russia party congress will give them a chance to prove Milov wrong.
-- Robert Coalson