Birth defects of Russian democracy

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MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Pyotr Romanov) - Today we are celebrating a hundred years of the tsar's Manifesto of October 17, 1905 on Improvements in the Russian Political System.

It midwifed the birth of Russian democracy. At any rate, owing to this document Russia received the Duma (Parliament), a multi-Party system (albeit limited), and freedom of speech and the press.

But the Manifesto was not given life by clever reform. It appeared because of a dramatic aggravation in the domestic situation that caused a panic attack at the top. From the very start, the architects of the Russian parliamentary system designed it merely as a lightning rod.

Nicholas II did not wish to give up even part of his authority because he did not realize how serious the situation was. He signed the Manifesto under pressure from Prime Minister Sergey Witte, and never understood that it delayed the downfall of his empire. At a meeting in February 1905, the tsar told his ministers without concealing his irritation: "One may think that you are afraid of the revolution." Minister of the Interior Bylugin replied with a sigh: "Your Majesty, the revolution has already started." This sigh went down in history for its double meaning: the incapable Emperor was of no smaller concern to him than the rioting in the streets.

Sergey Witte himself was fastidious about the revolution. This is what he wrote in his memoirs: "At that time everyone was going crazy, demanding an overhaul of the Russian Empire along the extremely democratic lines of the people's representation." Considering this "craziness," the reformer was prepared to resort to force, but strongly recommended that the tsar should also use a sedative. He asked Nicholas II to make a broad gesture in order to appease society. The Manifesto was produced as a sedative.

The pill was merely a tranquilizer but actually had a placebo effect on the disease. The Liberals were aghast about the Manifesto's third clause, which proclaimed the immutable rule that "any law not approved by the Duma shall be invalid, and that the representatives elected by the people shall monitor compliance with the law by all bodies of authority." But in reality it was merely a declaration. The State Council, which played the role of Parliament's upper chamber and was fully accountable to the tsar, had the right to reject any bill adopted by the Duma, while the right of MPs to "monitor" allowed the Deputies to shower the government with inquiries, which the ministers ignored in cold blood.

Incidentally, before long many understood the worth of the Manifesto, having dubbed that period in Russian history up to 1917, as an era of "fake constitutionalism."

Having not even left its cradle, the baby Parliament lashed out at its parents, giving food both for serious analysis of the situation in the country and for idle political speculation. The Duma turned into a rostrum of the opposition, causing irritation both in the tsarist court and in the government. Opening a regular session of the Duma, the tsar was dreaming of the day when it would be dissolved. Moreover, the Parliament did not appear to be very Russian in character. Formally, it was called the Duma, and deputies elected from all over Russia, were taking part in its work, but the structure and spirit of the Duma were Western rather than national. Therefore, the Russian democratic experience was totally neglected.

The destiny of the Duma was decided when an official of the tsar made a brief trip to Paris. He was working on a bill, which the tsar immediately approved without any debates. It was clear that Nicholas II could not care less about the Russian Parliament's structure because he did not expect it to last very long.

But the majority of deputies appreciated the multi-Party structure of the Duma. They enjoyed a high rostrum, which allowed them to use strong language for all Russia to hear. TV cameras had not yet been invented to broadcast the debates, but the press immediately commented on any success or row. MPs were happy about the law, under which "the members of the State Duma enjoy complete freedom of ideas on matters within the Duma jurisdiction, and are not accountable to their electorate." MPs could argue themselves hoarse, be it on major political problems or minor party squabbles, but the Duma was not in a position to do anything in practical terms, and was relieved of any responsibility to the electorate. This is why the would-be leaders of Russia preferred to work in Marxist groups rather than waste their time on idle debates in the Duma. If Parliament is inefficient, struggle for power assumes a different form. It might have been barbarian, but, as we know, quite effective.

It is with good reason that the current President is consolidating the vertical of power, and at the same time giving new authorities to legislatures of different levels. These seem to be contradictory trends but they serve the same purpose - help Russian democracy get rid of birth defects. Infantile disorders of Russian democracy will be gone when a party, which wins the elections, receives the right to form a new government, thereby assuming responsibility to the electorate. There will be other problems, of course, but no more whooping cough or smallpox.

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