What happened in the State Duma on June 5 could be the shape of things to come.
In a Russian version of the filibuster, the center-left opposition party A Just Russia submitted more than 400 amendments
to a controversial bill that would dramatically increase fines for illegal protests -- and insisted on reading out each amendment in excruciatingly pedantic detail. The Communist Party then joined in the "Italian strike," as the tactic is called in Russia.
Although the ruling United Russia party, which holds a majority in the Duma, managed to eventually ramrod the bill
through just before midnight after a marathon session, it was a pyrrhic victory. The spectacle, broadcast live on national television, turned the normally docile, rubber-stamp legislature into highly entertaining political theater.
The Federation Council, parliament's upper house, passed the legislation on June 6 and sent it to President Vladimir Putin for his signature. The authorities want the law in place before mass protests planned for June 12.
But the little rebellion in the Duma is sure to embolden the opposition and illustrates just how much Russian politics has changed in the past six months.
Just as street protesters began staging
"strolls," setting up "encampments," and holding "festivals" to exploit loopholes
in restrictive laws on public demonstrations, the once-obedient "systemic opposition" is now prepared to manipulate parliamentary procedure to get its point across and be a thorn in the Kremlin's side.
In an article last week in "Osobaya Bukva
," titled "Putin Ended Up in a Country Without Putin," journalists Maria Ponomaryova, Sergei Shurlov, and Aleksandr Gazov saw this coming:
The opposition is already taking the liberty of speaking loudly in the presence of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. And so ostentatiously that he has to interrupt himself to ask, in the tone of a school military instructor, everyone to listen to him. Was this conceivable five years ago? And the A Just Russia members even walk out of the room before the end of his speech.
Vladimir Vladimirovich has never seen this kind of parliament, where all presidential initiatives are not approved without hesitation. We do not know whether he will be able to give up his habit of treating the State Duma like an unruly but obedient child and accept the need for constructive work between the head of state and the legislative branch of government.
And the troubles with the Duma are just the beginning, the authors argue.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's weakness notwithstanding, his government will likely not be a "technical cabinet" that merely carries out the Kremlin's orders, as was the case under former Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov during Putin's second term. It could end up being as troublesome to the Kremlin as the Duma.
"Vladimir Vladimirovich no longer has the one-man management of the last decade," the authors of the "Osobaya Bukva" article wrote. "This is why he has to establish structures duplicating the cabinet in the offices of the Kremlin staff."
Additionally, Putin will now need to deal with the election of governors, which, despite the "filters" designed to assure the Kremlin's control of the process, could still turn into a major headache for the ruling elite:
Judging by all indications, the Kremlin does not know what to do about this now. Otherwise, we would not have seen the speedy reappointment of governors throughout the country, and the campaign for the fall elections of the leaders of Bryansk, Belgorod, and Novgorod oblasts would have already begun. Elections will be held in those regions in half a year, but the authorities have not taken any steps yet.
In spite of all the filters and administrative clout, elections are still elections. They will require difficult and thorough work with the regions, compromises, and the promotion of the necessary individuals. Is this something Putin, accustomed to unconditional subordination, is prepared to do?
And then there is United Russia, the once-mighty ruling party that now looks like a shadow of its former self.
It is beginning to become clear just how different Putin 2.0 will be from its cocky and well-oiled predecessor. Society has changed and yielded a "power horizontal," an increasingly integrated network of activists who believe the future belongs to them. But the elite has changed as well, and as a result, Putin's vaunted "power vertical" looks increasingly creaky.
-- Brian Whitmore
NOTE: THIS POST HAS BEEN UPDATED TO REFLECT THE DUMA'S LATE-NIGHT PASSAGE OF THE BILL REGULATING PUBLIC DEMONSTRATIONS AND THE FEDERATION COUNCIL'S PASSAGE OF IT ON JUNE 6