Russian State Duma: ‘Possessed printer’ or executor of the people’s will?

by Natalia Antonova at 29/01/2014 18:23

State Duma holds plenary session

Whether you're sick of people's garlic breath on public transportation, or else scandalized by frank discussion of sex on TV, you may rest assured that someone in the State Duma is probably working on introducing a law addressing your very concerns.

In 2013 alone, 1,513 new legislative initiatives and amendments were submitted for review in the Duma. Out of that number, 448 were adopted and signed by President Vladimir Putin after being approved by the Federation Council, thus becoming law. Since the 2011 Duma elections, the amount of new legislative initiatives being introduced has been on the upswing - in 2011, 1,003 initiatives were introduced, while by 2012, that number had grown to 1,202.

The Duma's energetic legislative activity, much of it conservative in nature, has inspired the liberal protest class to derisively refer to it as a "possessed printer." From recriminalizing libel to bans on American adoptions and insulting religious feelings, the Duma has steadily supported a conservative trend in Russian politics, and observers believe this trend is likely to continue.

Some political experts have further argued that both the Duma and the Federation Council largely act as a rubber stamp for initiatives generated by the presidential administration.

"The executive [branch of government] has been the main lawmaker for the last decade, and that tendency is not changing," political expert and legislative analyst Catherine Schulmann wrote in Vedomosti on January 22. "In the year 2012, out of 334 new federal laws that were signed by the president, the cabinet had submitted 184, and the presidential administration submitted 45. In 2013, the president signed 448 laws - 251 were cabinet initiatives, and 29 were presidential initiatives."

Based on these statistics, the executive branch initiated roughly two-thirds of the federal legislation that has been passed in the last two years.

Yet it is the goings-on in the Duma that usually get the most media attention. From head-scratching initiatives to forbid garlic consumption in public places (introduced by a deputy from the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party to much mirth) to the ban on promotion of non-traditional sexual relations to minors (which originated with the ruling United Russia party and passed in the summer of 2013), the Duma is always in the news.

Conservative ‘tender'

Government critics believe that the Duma's main function at present is to realize the socially and politically conservative aims of Putin's third term as president.

"What's happening with Putin's third term is radically different from his previous terms and from [Dmitry] Medvedev's time [as president]," Alexander Morozov, political expert and head of the Center for Media Research of the Institute for History of Cultures, told The Moscow News.

"In this last couple of years, Putin has effectively created a kind of tender for conservative legal initiatives," Morozov said. "Both [Duma] deputies and Kremlin-friendly personalities are thus working to gain Putin's approval, and striking out against human rights and the Constitution."

Majority approval?

Yet not everyone believes that the government's conservative lawmaking spree is a bad thing.

According to Sergei Markov, head of the Institute of Political Studies and member of the Public Chamber, both Putin and the Duma are merely acting out the will of the majority.

"The laws that were passed - the ban on gay promotion, or the ban on insulting religious feelings - they may be disliked by homosexuals [involved in politics] or people who have plans to insult religion, but so what?" said Markov, who served as a Duma deputy in United Russia from 2007 until 2011. "These laws are being passed for the benefit of the majority."

Recent polls suggest that a conservative agenda on both homosexuality and religion is indeed supported by a majority of the population. A November 2013 poll by the Levada Center, a respected independent polling organization, revealed that 68 percent of Russians approve the so-called gay propaganda law, for example.

Similarly, 55 percent of Russians also support a ban on insulting religious feelings, according to another November 2013 poll by Levada.

"Putin understands that society has grown more active - the people who voted for him are demanding a conservative agenda today," Markov said. "As a democratically elected president, Putin must do what his voters demand."

Levada analyst Tatyana Vorozheikina, however, believes that the situation is more nuanced than it seems.

"It depends on the law in question," she said. "When people think that certain legislation - such as the ban on gay promotion to minors or the law on insulting religious feelings - cannot affect them personally, they will support it."

According to Vorozheikina, conservative initiatives that are perceived as having the potential to directly affect the majority of the country are rejected by Russians.

"Look at the situation surrounding proposals to put restrictions on abortion or divorce - these are things that were considered an inalienable right in the Soviet Union, and are still viewed this way today," she said. "People react negatively to them and see them as a direct interference in their lives."

A July 2013 poll by Levada showed that over two-thirds of Russians believe that the government should not interfere in people's decisions regarding abortion. The same poll showed that 70 percent of Russians have somewhat negative to extremely negative views on a proposal to employ a divorce tax to discourage families from breaking up.

Voters need empowerment

According to Vedomosti columnist Schulmann, the speed with which new legislation is passed is a "curse" of modern-day Russian parliamentarianism.

"There is no law that should be passed immediately," she said.  "The executive branch [of government] has enough instruments to react quickly in any given situation."

Among sensitive legislation that was passed too quickly, critics frequently cite the law banning insulting religious feelings and the ban on promotion of non-traditional relations.

"How do you apply these laws?" the Center for Media Research's Morozov said. "They are strange, declarative documents with a poor legal base, supported by people with no legal background."

Schulmann believes that empowering voters is the only way for Russian lawmaking to realistically move forward.

"There is no notion of division of power, therefore the Parliament is perceived as an executive body, similar to a ministry," she told The Moscow News. "There is only one way to fix this: hold free, fair elections."

© 2009 The Moscow News