Several events this week, seemingly unrelated, neatly illustrate the gradual closing of horizons in Russian democracy. The most dramatic and visible of the three was the June 2 firing of Leonid Parfenov, the charismatic host of NTV’s weekly “Namedni” talk show. Technically, he was removed for breaching terms of his contract by violating corporate ethnics. Specifically, he erred by broadcasting on May 30 an interview with the widow of Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, the former Chechen president slain in Qatar. The interview was actually shown when the program broadcast in the Russian Far East, seven hours ahead of Moscow. By the time the program was aired in European Russia, it had been cut. NTV Deputy Director Aleksandr Gerasimov told Parfenov he had been ordered to cut the piece by government officials, citing the ongoing trial in Qatar of two Russian intelligence agents accused of the murder. Parfenov requested that Gerasimov provide written instructions to cancel the interview. Parfenov then leaked the document to the Kommersant newspaper. (BBC, June 3)
Parfenov’s irreverent program was one of the top five in NTV’s repertoire, attracting about 15% of the viewing audience. Parfenov provided one of the few forums on social and political criticism carried on NTV, which has been less politically assertive since it was taken over by Gazprom in April 2001, leading to the departure of the former news team led by Yevgeny Kiselev.
Dejected liberals took the Parfenov firing as proof that the boundaries of free speech in Russian media are shrinking, especially where anything connected to Chechnya is involved. Now, the main standard bearer for free debate on NTV is Savik Shuster’s aptly titled program Svoboda Slova (free speech). On June 3, Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov criticized Shuster for questioning the advisability of Moscow’s bid for the 2012 Olympics on his May 21 program (Kommersant, June 4). Luzhkov complained about such a program being run by a “citizen of a foreign country.” Shuster has Canadian citizenship.
Meanwhile, over at the State Duma, the government was introducing a new bill to radically tighten procedures for calling a referendum. Under the new rules, groups trying to gather the required 2 million signatures will have to work in at least half of Russia’s regions, with no more than 50,000 signatures from each area, down from the current 200,000 (Moscow Times, 25 May). All canvassers will have to be officially notarized, and will have to complete the process in 45 days, half the current requirement of 90 days. The new rules make it prohibitively difficult to call a referendum. The government presumably wants to eliminate any possible threats to stability. For example, the new rules would affect a campaign by the Communists to have a referendum on planned increases in utility rates, or the retraction of non-cash benefits for welfare recipients.
There has never been a popularly sponsored referendum in Russia’s short history as a democracy. An effort by the Greens to call a referendum in 2000 on nuclear waste imports failed after the Central Election Commission voided one quarter of collected signatures. The Central Election Commission (CEC) also was busy this week, working on new ways to streamline Russian democracy. At a meeting on June 1, CEC Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov announced plans to introduce exclusively proportional representation in elections at both regional and national level within the next 18 months. Currently, half the seats in legislatures are filled from party lists in public relations contests, and half in single-mandate races (politkom.ru, June 2).
Veshnyakov dislikes single-seat races because they provide an opportunity for individual businesses — or even criminal groups — to buy deputy seats by pouring money into the campaigns of favored candidates. Public relations races among a handful of nationally registered parties are obviously easier for the government to control.
The previous week saw the introduction of a bill to strip the already anemic State Duma of another potential lever of control. The bill shifts responsibility for the Audit Chamber from the Duma to the president, who in the future will nominate the head, subject to Duma confirmation. Headed by former Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, the Audit Chamber has been quite assertive in digging into various scandals. The proposed rule change makes doubly sure that investigations will not stray from the Kremlin agenda. From the outset, critics argued that “managed democracy” is a contradiction in terms. The fact that the Kremlin continues to tinker with the mechanism, even in the absence of any serious political threats, illustrates another flaw in the system. Over time, democratic elements atrophy, while managerial interventions develop their own bureaucratic logic.