In Need of a Major Overhaul
No. 3 2013 July/September
Svyatoslav I. Kaspe

Doctor of Political Science
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of Social Sciences
School of Politics and Governance
Politeia journal


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ORCID: 0000-0001-6746-510X
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Revamping Russia’s Political System

This article contains excerpts from a report Kaspe drafted for the Strategy 21 project for the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.

Twenty years after it was established, Russia’s post-Soviet political system is still experiencing problems. The system is subject to such disorder and dysfunction that even the most loyal government official cannot help but notice. Russia’s political system does not ensure that the objectives for which it was designed can be accomplished. The system’s capacity to accumulate resources of various types (material, ideological, and human) and to distribute them is weak and continues to deteriorate, while the system’s expenses are exorbitant. Moreover, it is becoming increasingly difficult to control the political system. Public trust in the government and other political structures is very low and the relatively high ratings of individual politicians cannot make up for it. The very same ratings, which in essence form the only bastion of the regime, face the risk of a sudden collapse.

Yet the Russian political system’s lack of efficiency is only the tip of the iceberg. The true cause of the problem lies much deeper and is similar to the causes of other woes plaguing Russian society. Russia’s political deficiency is moral and political in nature, since it neither satisfies people’s needs nor assists the country’s development.

A political system is designed to facilitate economic development, maintain political stability, keep the ruling elite in power, and advance a political nation. Yet the system’s main function should be to increase and improve the country’s human capital, and foster patriotic citizens who enjoy individual freedoms and have a sense of collective responsibility. A nation cannot have a future without such people. Frankly speaking, they are practically absent in Russia. All of us – and even the best of us – are the remains of laboratory material that was used in an ungodly experiment to transform human nature in the 20th century in Russia. The experiment collapsed, but we survived. The elites and the common citizens are equally infected with non-patriotism, egotism, estrangement (from one another), ignorance, inactivity, and servility. These are, of course, inherent diseases that cannot be cured by political remedies alone. However, we cannot do without them either.

We have almost forgotten that politics should have a value component (the fascination with perestroika proved to be short-lived). The absence of value guidelines beyond accounts of benefits and costs turns politics into a nasty parody of itself and deprives it of power and functionality.

Attempts to combine Russia’s political system with the values of freedom and justice, patriotism and morality, faith and individual/family security, and success have resulted in nothing. On the contrary, many elements of the political system patently defy these values, both individually and as a whole. Political leaders and the common citizen associate the Russian political system, and the state in particular, with restrictions on freedom, theft, unfairness, cynicism, bureaucratic absurdities, and senseless and ruthless violence, albeit limited for now. These associations are not always well grounded, but trite stereotypes are even more dangerous. This kind of political system does not only fail to facilitate social progress, but it actually perverts the elites, the masses, and the elites’ human resources. Such a system has no chance of acquiring legitimacy either through a facelift or stubborn attempts to preserve the status quo. It needs a major overhaul. Thus, this is the only alternative to its demolition.

No sudden moves should be undertaken that might upset the already fragile balance or make it more difficult to control the system. The main thing is to repel any efforts to revise the effective Constitution, despite any well meaning and earnest intentions that might stand behind those attempts. The Constitution is practically the only genuine value element of the Russian political system that is in place to defend national and human dignity.

Controlled evolution is the only alternative to political stalemate and a political catastrophe, which stagnation will inevitably bring about. Naturally, an overt and unambiguous transition to a gradual and consistent transformation will obviously require compromises from a divided society. Yet only this kind of transition will make compromises possible and map out fair rules and clear prospects to win the game for all of its participants. This is the only option that can ensure a stable peace in society and rule out a war in which everyone is against everyone else. The Russian political system should be refashioned in accordance with the requirements of common sense and sound morality.


For over two decades we have complained about our weak civil society and dismal state of local self-government, but we have failed to realize that they are parts of a whole. Indeed, civil society and local self-government are interconnected organically. A citizen is a person capable of managing his/her affairs on his/her own, while cooperating closely with his/her equals. Self-government, self-organization, and independence are the schools of civic duty and represent the best method of raising and selecting the elites. However, the predominant view on self-government that has taken root in Russia is that of a ‘consumer service’ provided for ‘the population.’ In essence, ‘the population’ is assigned the role of a passive consumer. The consumer plays the role of a dystrophic patient who needs permanent care and is capable of nothing else other than expressing displeasure with the quality of the services offered. Naturally, such irresponsibility stimulates in the population a habit of growling and freeloading. The government proceeds from a presumption that its citizens are unable to take any sensible collective action concerning the environment in which they live, even though they may be perfectly aware of their interests and values. This attitude preserves paternalistic stereotypes in Russia and corrodes its entire political system and society.

The political programs of the 1990s and early 2000s collapsed precisely because they were implemented to bypass society, and ignored or cynically exploited its weakness. This fact underscores the importance of getting down to business now, using local self-government as a platform to increase civil society and focus on the citizen as the government’s natural ally, rather than an unfortunate hindrance.

Trusting self-acting agencies is the only way to alleviate the burden of responsibility that currently rests on both the federal and regional authorities. The costs and risks of transferring power downwards are inescapable, but are not so daunting in reality. The costs and risks of failing to do so are much more serious. Moreover, local self-government, as both a balance for and a restraint of local elites, is a natural ally for the federal authorities.

An important and long-overdue move would be to grant municipalities broad functions consistent with their financial reserves. One can force a dystrophic patient to get up from his bed and clean his apartment, but first he needs proper nutrition. As a future target, it would make sense to set as an objective accumulating one-fifth to one-third of all tax revenues at the municipal level. The federal government should have the will to make this political decision. Obviously, this should be implemented step by step, since the amount of social pledges amassed with federal agencies and the condition of the financial vaults is such that an instantaneous restructuring of the inter-budgetary balance will lead to what is prescribed in the federal law on organizing self-government in Russia – a short list of “issues of local significance.” This is a huge moral mistake and imposes arbitrarily established limitations on local initiatives and civil responsibility.

At the same time this is a big technical error, as the law rules out the possibility for taking into account local specificities and the possibility of prompt maneuvering with local community resources – something that is completely unacceptable in a country like Russia. Instead of a short list, we need to apply the principle that local self-government agencies are competent, which is in accordance with global practice and presupposes local responsibility for problems that do not fall under the scope of the government. Such responsibility should be viewed as an inalienable feature of citizens. To deny it would mean denying civicism in its most elementary and natural form.

An overly intense prosecutorial supervision over the operations of local self-government agencies essentially paralyzes them. This is a result of strictly enforcing a law that excludes local self-government from the system of state power. Remarkably, this goes hand in hand with systemic neglect of the same law. Of course, this provision should be kept, since it falls in line with Russia’s international legal obligations and, even more important, complies with common sense and sound morality. Yet its literal interpretation has deprived the state of legal instruments for interaction with local self-government agencies, except for “prosecutorial control measures.” Improving legal mechanisms of state supervision by regional state power officials will certainly reduce the need for prosecutors as the last tool in government hands to restrict local self-government. Such supervision should be preventive and consultative so as to rule out direct dictatorship.

Eventually, if self-government institutions gain strength, the artificially weakened municipal governments in Moscow and St. Petersburg will become totally intolerable and even politically dangerous. The absence of genuine local self-government in Russia’s two largest cities does not only discredit their residents, but also redirects their complaints about the problems of daily life, even the most trifling ones, to the federal authorities. The history of Russian and European revolutions shows clearly that this type of interaction with residents of large cities is highly undesirable.

A work record for local self-government agencies must become a mandatory component of political careers.

Revising recent decisions that restrict the operations of non-profit organizations is a crucial step. Incidentally, we suggest they be renamed “self-regulated associations of citizens” (to be abbreviated as SOGs in Russian), as this would match Russian social and language realities. Today, the state is behaving irrationally and immorally as it intimidates and alienates self-regulatory civil, charitable, and research associations that are essentially its natural allies in enhancing the quality of human capital.

A rough system of support for self-regulatory associations has been created, which is certainly considered as a benefit. Yet the government cannot and should not assume solitary responsibility for supporting the voluntary sector. Business incentives for charity and social responsibility should be maintained. The effectiveness of appealing to business to do all things graciously will remain low unless an effective mechanism is devised to deduct charitable contributions from the tax base without turning it into a method of tax evasion and money laundering. Another measure to saturate the voluntary sector with resources and stimulate charitable activity is to divide the personal income tax. A percentage of the tax (for instance, one percent of the 13 percent paid by the majority of Russian citizens) might be directed to a non-governmental organization or charity foundation, religious association, educational center, or healthcare institution. Civil financing may take on the role of a powerful instrument to promote civic responsibility. Indeed, who would not like to have an opportunity to directly manage how one’s taxes are distributed?RENEWING THE ELITE

The quality of the elite and the mechanisms of its selection and renewal are determined by whether its decisions conform to the common good. Importantly, this criterion is both rational and ethical. Today’s Russian elite, which formed spontaneously in the extreme conditions of a twenty-year systemic social crisis, meets this criterion minimally. Yet this very elite managed to restrain the crisis and did not let it grow into a disaster – a fact worthy of respect. Modest and fragile stability is, indeed, a big achievement for the incumbent elite.

However, at present the Russian elite is growing numb, drawing into its shell and losing its flexibility. The absence of efficacious mechanisms for renewal that would be recognized by society is turning into a source of political threat, above all stagnation and a subsequent inevitable collapse. Russia will not be able to survive yet another uncontrollable change of elites, as that will result in chaos. The only alternative is to rapidly devise mechanisms to recruit and rotate the elite. Importantly, these mechanisms should function on a regular basis and be transparent; the new elite should not emerge out of an extraordinary situation or personal ties. These renewal mechanisms must include both electoral and non-electoral instruments. They do not rule out each other. Indeed, they are complimentary and neither works without the other.

Thus, contrary to the illusions of romantic democrats, elections cannot be regarded as a universal solution. The experience of most democratic states shows graphically that elections are no longer a meritocratic institution and are increasingly turning into a springboard for populists and adventurists. Excessive trust in electoral procedures is not only non-beneficial for improving the quality of the elite, but also often entails a decline of that quality.

Elections are neither a panacea nor a decoration. As a smoothly functioning institution, they legitimize a political system overall, including its non-electoral components. They play the role of a lightning rod that ensures a safe discharge for potentially destructive political moods. In a certain sense, elections keep corrupt officials and embezzlers in check, intimidating them by the prospect of inevitable replacement and “a settling of accounts.” Also, elections work as a social lift (a necessary and crucial one), which must never be disabled under any circumstances.

Other mechanisms of recruitment and rotation of the elites – above all of the executive – offset the side effects of the electoral system. We need to make government officers more professional, functionally specialized, and committed to attain tangible results. For the elite, state service should mean service to the people, devotion, and allegiance.

Electoral mechanisms to renew the elites are helpful where and when the advantages exceed the costs, and the use of auxiliary, mostly technical, methods can easily iron out the risks. The Russian government’s recent decision to return to the direct election of regional governors while giving the regions the option to opt out of direct elections in favor of selecting from a list of candidates approved by the president is a good example in this sense. The crucial thing now is to remain on this course, maintain the electoral mechanism as the main component, and not to rush to replace it with something else under pressure of blackmail on the part of some regional elites.

In case of party list elections, it is necessary to endorse a statutory ban on the practice of withdrawing from a mandate in favor of another candidate from the same party (the so-called ‘steam engine’ practice) as a priori immoral and purportedly deceitful. Withdrawal from a mandate should automatically entail its handover to the party with the next largest percentage of votes. This rule will quickly put an end to this unfair practice once and for all.

Non-transparent electoral procedures should be restricted. These include voting by absentee ballot, voting at polling stations with restricted access, and voting at home. These options should not be done away with entirely, but should be used only in cases when there are no other alternatives.

Another step should be a transition to elections of Federation Council deputies that are conducted in two-mandate constituencies. The Federation Council has long stopped performing its function as the upper house of the Russian parliament. Senators should regain political independence and be connected by bonds of solidarity with voters in their regions. Two-mandate election is essential for ruling out the conflict-prone impact of “the winner takes it all” principle and for incorporating a maximally broad spectrum of elitist groups.

Unconventional solutions are needed to drastically reduce the side effects of electoral procedures while preserving their benefits. Introducing a multiplying electoral ratio or, in fact, delegating one supplementary vote or several votes to individual citizens or several categories of citizens might offer one of the solutions. Initially, democratic elections had voting qualifications. They were discriminatory and gave the right to vote to those who demonstrated impeccable political conduct. However, much later the right to vote began to be perceived as an inalienable element of human freedom regardless of a person’s qualities and took on a universal character. The results were both good and bad. Responsible voting is increasingly an exception rather than the rule today. It might make sense now to introduce positive discrimination: without denying anyone the right to vote, the government could reinforce the electoral weight of individuals or groups of people who vote responsibly. Naturally, the criteria for granting the reinforced electoral right and its scope (one, two, or three supplementary votes) can be determined only after broad public discussion and an expert study. The criteria (qualifications) cannot be property-related (or at least not until the problem of legitimizing the institution of property is resolved by a consensus), but they could be related to education. Other possible criteria may include charitable activities, voluntary service in the Armed Forces, state awards, the number of children in a family, etc. This initiative is devoid of corruption risks, as a reinforced electoral right does not bring any material benefits with it. Yet it has the potential to play a huge moral role. The initiative will shape responsible citizens, whom Russia needs so much at the moment.

There is a need for a set of formal and informal measures to divide political and administrative classes, and turn political and administrative careers into parallel social lifts. These lifts would provide an opportunity to transfer from one lift to another, but one could not ride in both lifts at the same time. Specifically, all government employees should face a much tougher ban on membership in any political party (including surrogate memberships) than they face now. On the other hand, a clear political party affiliation of elected political managers at all levels and a limited number of appointed officials (for instance, federal and regional ministers) should be implied and encouraged, but they should be treated as public politicians, not as federal employees. It would make sense to formalize in legislation respective notions and the legal status of such individuals. A deputy or a governor is not a bureaucrat. Our perception of them as bureaucrats betrays the rigidity of our Soviet habit of interpreting the ruling class as a monolithic nomenklatura. The bureaucracy needs to be made professional and no longer be required to instantly react to the slightest change in politics, which works to the detriment of long-term plans. Such a change would increase the efficiency of executive power. De-bureaucratizing the political class is a mandatory condition for transforming it into a genuine elite with a strategic mentality and a sense of duty.

Another important step is to renew the membership of the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) and the electoral commissions of lower levels. All other tasks pertaining to the restoration of legitimacy of the political system cannot be solved without it, since no one trusts the incumbent machinery of administrating elections. A politically non-affiliated professional with a flawless reputation and an ability to win everyone’s trust should be nominated for the position of CEC chairman.

 It is desirable to ensure that the renewal of electoral commission members proceeds together with reducing the number of federal employees among them, as they are too dependable and administered to guarantee the legitimacy of elections.

Universities should also take a deserved place in the country’s political system. Returning their legitimate role as the main institutional reserve of the elite will remove the temptation to spawn false and imitational cadres. The universities should play the role of career lifts for the young and be a place to apply the experience and talents of people who leave state service and resign from elected offices.

Particular attention should be paid to a radical reform of the academies of government service. Efforts to clean these Augean stables have already begun, but the progress is extremely slow.

If we launch a multilayer system of training executives, then the introduction of stringent age qualifications for federal employees of various ranks and classes (combined in one way or another with educational qualifications) will be justified.

The authorities must stand up to any resistance to the campaign (that was given the go-ahead and almost immediately stopped) against corruption in the education system. Selling diplomas and dissertations puts national security into jeopardy. It perverts the younger generation, spoils existing human resources and, worst of all, makes improvement impossible.

Education should be considered an integral element of the political system since it represents the most visible image of a country’s future. The current conception of reforming the secondary school system drastically needs radical revision concerning so-called elitist schools (lyceums, centers of profound education, etc.). The desire to bring them to a common denominator with most other educational institutions should give way to the precise opposite: these institutions should receive maximum preferences. An axiom suggests that there will be no elite without elitist schools. Civil education should become a major task of school education. High school students today receive a mixture of fragmentary historical facts – not always accurate – instead of a well-structured package of civil values. Teachers provide students with too little information on a number of subjects, including general sociology, psychology, law, and religion. Our civil education is in dire need of a comprehensive overhaul and a drastic modernization based on the aforementioned requirements of common sense and sound morality. Secondary education has a dramatic role to play in filling in the gaps in civil culture; that is, the lack of active and responsible citizens who are free from paternalistic stereotypes, who are capable of independent social, economic, and political behavior, and who are able to cooperate with one another.

A considerable increase in the volumes and quality of expert and intellectual support for political decision-making is necessary in order to raise the efficiency of both executive and legislative power. This should be implemented not so much through public councils affiliated with the authorities or similar figurehead entities; rather, through organizationally independent think tanks. Another opportunity that is almost ignored at present is mobilizing a huge expert resource of civil associations, bona fide associations, not simulations, that could provide a powerful boost to their constructive integration in the political system. For now, they are being pushed into opposition.


A society based on parties is not a political bazaar where cynical peddlers work hard to plug goods not really needed by customers. Parties constitute a basic mechanism of value orientation in society. Parties (real, not forged) project the very structure of society onto the political sphere. They represent sections of society that have attained a certain level of self-identification, have formed value-oriented notions of power, and are translating them into life by delegating their acknowledged representatives to governmental positions. Russia has not had much time to use the opportunities and benefits of a classical party system and it stands in need of parties right now. This means that the task today does not consist in rescuing the incumbent parties or tailoring the party system to some overseas patterns. The task is to facilitate the rise of a unique and country-specific party system that is stable and matches Russia’s social reality.

Electoral laws should not be revised for three to four election cycles. Constant changes to the rules create a major obstacle towards stabilizing the pluralistic system and the political system on the whole. A correct decision was made to reinstate a mixed-member proportional system of elections to the State Duma and it should remain in place. It looks like legitimization of electoral blocs is the only crucial adjustment that needs to be made before the next election. The causes warranting it are different from what is said today; namely, to provide opportunities for political newcomers to get to parliament. A moratorium on changing election rules over the next twenty years or so will make it possible to discuss the options for modernizing the electoral system.

Preferable options are already on the table. First is the mixed-member proportional system, which in essence is a modification of the existing model. The second option is to elect the entire State Duma along the majority principle. This has considerable advantages; above all, its inherent transparency, which is the main condition for the legitimacy of an elected agency. However, observing two conditions is important in this case: first, making it possible to nominate candidates through political parties and, second, requiring two rounds of elections. This is a two-component solution, but it will coerce the parties to go beyond the limits of Moscow’s Garden Ring and off the airwaves to do practical work with real voters in concrete regions. Quasi-parties that fail to adapt to local conditions will disappear. On the other hand, this will stimulate local leaders and political activists (that is, potential members of the political elite) to acquire a party identity by joining the ranks of existing parties or by creating new ones (real, not fictional). For this to work, horizontal relations and inter-regional cooperation will be necessary. This will also ensure a reasonably small number of parties in the system owing to an institutional coercion towards polarized consolidation around candidates from the most influential parties in order to win the second round of elections. Incidentally, the aforementioned factors will work towards bringing the institution of elections at least into a limited, yet still greater than now, compliance with the principles of a meritocracy.

It is important to stop the artificial support of formal unity as represented by the United Russia party, which has long fulfilled its historical tasks and is having a negative impact on the selection of administrative cadres now. The delay in the solution of this problem has de-legitimized the parliament, a phenomenon unique in recent Russian history. An appalling decline of the quality of lawmaking has turned the State Duma into the subject of all kinds of jokes. The first step that has to be undertaken by the current Duma is the formal fractioning of United Russia. Previous attempts to do so have been unsuccessful. It may make sense to try other options this time. For instance, dividing the party along the ‘Centralists vs. Regionalists’ principle. Or else, they can be combined in one way or another. Fractioning will mean a resolute renunciation of forcing future factions into consolidated voting. Such voting is guaranteed in cases where it is really needed, but in all other cases it mars the quality of decisions. It is not United Russia, but a cluster of “stability parties,” each of them independent in terms of program and ideology, that will compete in the next election. These versions of stability will contend with one another. The cluster will take the shape of a bloc partially or fully if necessary. This is the strongest argument in favor of legalizing blocs.

The supreme power should assist – not in words only – the rise of a constructive political opposition, protect the sprouts of the latter, and help them mature into parties. This will help get rid of the blind fear of opposition that discredits the state authorities. The opposition that presents the worldview, values, and interests of an objective section of society and that does not want a forcible overthrow of the government nor does it espouse racist or misanthropic ideas falls into the category of constructive opposition.

A morally insolvent parliament undermines the legitimacy of state power and its supreme institutions. Restoring the parliament’s appropriate status is not an uphill climb and it will not demand any radical changes in the constitutional makeup. Initially, it will be enough to return the controlling function to the parliament, including the restoration of an exceptional parliamentary function of control over the Audit Chamber. This function is important both historically and critically for all parliaments to a larger extent than lawmaking and playing political games. Thus, the government will secure one more instrument for fighting corruption.

As the country and society accumulates more political and social capital, an opportunity will arise to give budgetary functions to the parliament. No one has ever managed to raise a responsible citizen, while ignoring him as a conscientious taxpayer. Building human capital requires a strict bond between civicism and a social control over allocating public funds through elected representation. The risks of populist pressure on the budget will grow. That is why returning this function to parliament demands caution, although doing so is mandatory in the long term, otherwise all populist demands will be addressed to the higher authorities.

Finally, there is one measure that does not look essential, but which is important emblematically – an absolute ban on voting in the State Duma by proxy. Few things discredit a parliament so severely as rushing from one place to another with cards in the hands when the house is empty. No country in the world, to say nothing of Russia with its aspirations of greatness, deserves such a disgrace.

* * *

An overhauled political system will not be perfect because perfect systems do not exist. Yet it will be open for improvements and it will facilitate, not impede, efforts to change the construction of Russia’s social and economic life for the better. A revised system will foster a feeling of civil patriotism with Russians. The lack of such a system is the greatest challenge today. We still have a chance, perhaps the final chance, to set ourselves firmly on the path we have been searching for the past two decades and from which we have deviated more than once. Another twenty years of wandering in the wilderness will either bring prosperity and national pride to Russia or we will lose it forever. Let us not play games with fate.