Former independent State Duma deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov was one of the last liberals to remain in the State Duma, but the fate of his career as a parliamentary deputy was sealed in March 2007, when Russia’s Supreme Court liquidated his small Republican Party of Russia, claiming that it was in violation of electoral law by having too few members. The Supreme Court’s ruling, combined with the Kremlin’s electoral “reform” abolishing single mandate State Duma seats, meant that Ryzhkov’s 14-year career as a national legislator ended with the State Duma election and convening of the fifth State Duma last December.
Outside of parliament, Ryzhkov remains a trenchant critic of the centralization of power that has taken place in Russia over the past eight years. In a recent interview with the Russian service of Germany’s Deutsche Welle radio, he said that there was a huge gap today between the liberal rhetoric of the Russian government and its real actions and that the country lacked the free press and independent parliament and court system necessary to control the state’s monopoly of power.
Deutsche Welle asked Ryzhkov whether President-elect Dmitry Medvedev’s series of declarations in favor of individual and press freedom, debureaucratization and a fight against corruption augured a “liberalization of the regime.” He responded, “I see, strange as it may seem, that … as the rhetoric of President-elect Medvedev and sitting President Putin has become more liberal in the last week, life is becoming more filled with despotism, persecution and what is normally called ‘bad news’.”
Ryzhkov cited three “completely outrageous decisions” made by the State Duma recently which, he said, “run counter to this liberal rhetoric of the country’s leadership.” The first, he said, was the Duma’s adoption of changes to the law on referendums. Ryzhkov was referring to the Duma’s passage on April 4, by a vote of 363-8, of an amendment forbidding any referendum on a matter that comes under the jurisdiction of federal authorities such as taxation, the presidential term of office or legal amnesties (Reuters, April 4). In passing that amendment, Ryzhkov told Deutsche Welle, the Duma essentially “abolished that article of the constitution that guarantees national referendums.” Part 3 of Article 3 of Russia’s constitution states that “the referendum and free elections shall be the supreme direct manifestation of the power of the people,” while Part 2 of Article 32 states that “citizens of the Russian Federation shall have the right to elect and to be elected to bodies of state governance and to organs of local self-government, as well as take part in a referendum.”
The second “outrageous decision” by the State Duma, according to Ryzhkov, was its rejection of a package of anti-corruption laws, including initiatives that “demand of officials, in accordance with worldwide practice, that they declare their property and that of their families.” On April 4, the Duma rejected anti-corruption legislation that would have required officials to declare the incomes and property of relatives, including for three years after leavimg their official positions. As Elena Panfilova, director of the Center for Anti-Corruption Research and Initiatives, Transparency International-Russia, told Novye Izvestia, such a measure should be one of the “basic requirements” for any official upon assuming office. “No one wants to divulge the income of relatives, because it is precisely the registration of property to family members that serves as one of the methods for concealing illegally received wealth,” she said. “Naturally, such a demand is taken as a shock by corrupt officials and will be met by them with resistance and sabotage” (Novye Izvestia, April 7).
The third “outrageous decision” by the State Duma, according to Vladimir Ryzhkov, was the resolution approved on April 2 declaring that the 1930s famine which killed millions of peasants, mainly in Soviet Ukraine, should not be considered genocide. The resolution, which the Duma passed by a vote of 370 to 56 and was supported by the Nobel laureate and Soviet-era dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, stated that there was “no historical proof that the famine was organized along ethnic lines” and that its victims were “million of citizens of the Soviet Union, representing different peoples and nationalities living largely in agricultural areas of the country.” Ryzhkov said that this was a “completely outrageous resolution on the famine of 1931-1933 in Ukraine, the southern Russian regions and the Volga region.” He added, “In the document, in particular, one can read phrases like: of course it’s a pity that seven million people died of hunger as a result of the forceful seizure of foodstuffs (above all, of grain, by the Bolshevik authorities), but on the other hand, the Novokuznetsk [Metallurgical] Combine, Magnitka [the Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Combine] and Dneproges [the Dnepr Hydroelectric Plant] . . . will be eternal monuments to them.”
“Therefore a huge gap can be observed between the liberal rhetoric and the practice, which is becoming more authoritarian and despotic,” Ryzhkov concluded. “If you read only their texts, then the impression is formed that Russia has already overtaken Switzerland and Holland taken together in terms of tolerance, openness, liberalism, the primacy of law. But if you look at the practice, then it is an authoritarian corrupt police state, where dissidents are persecuted, a redistribution of property is continuing and human rights are violated on a mass scale. The gap between the rhetoric and real life is now so great that it even seems to me bigger than in the Brezhnev times, when speeches about the well-being of the Soviet people were delivered from the tribunes and people resentfully listened to all of this at empty refrigerators in Soviet kitchens” (Deutsche Welle, April 11).