The Russian parliament is a “rubber stamp” assembly. But we’d lose a lot by ignoring it.
A variety of Russian media outlets have announced a boycott of the Russian State Duma — the lower chamber of the national legislature.
The reason for the boycott relates to a sexual harassment scandal. One of the Duma’s legislators — Leonid Slutsky, Chair of the Duma’s International Affairs Committee — has been accused of harassment by a number of reporters and a spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
A number of media outlets responded by announcing a boycott in protest.
And, in a retaliatory move, the Duma leadership has withdrawn accreditation from these boycotting bodies.
In practice, this means that outlets such as the BBC Russian Service and the respected business daily Kommersant will cease to report on all, or simply some, activities of the Duma. And parliamentary correspondents will no longer have access to the buildings of the lower chamber.
Some commentators have argued we won’t miss much by seeing less coverage of the Duma.
The Russian State Duma is, indeed, a “rubber stamp” body. When the president or the government want to get something passed into law, they have no trouble whatsoever.
Deputies — as Duma legislators are known — on the whole lack influence, and are often merely useful as vote-button-pushing automatons to ensure the smooth passage of legislative bills.
But this doesn’t mean that the legislative stage of law-making isn’t important.
To understand why, we need to look more closely at the Russian political executive. Comprising government ministries, agencies, and the Kremlin (the Presidential Administration), the executive is itself often internally divided on policy issues.
That means that, even when a bill is formally submitted for review into parliament by the executive, policy disputes can flare up between different actors within the executive.
Ideally, all of these internal disputes would be resolved in the privacy of executive discussion rooms well before bills are entered into parliament.
But there are a variety of reasons that make this exceedingly difficult. One such difficulty relates to the time pressures relating to many policy initiatives.
If President Putin signals that he wants to see a policy change, government ministries often have little time to put a proposal together. This also gives them little time to scrutinise initiatives in the privacy of cabinet-level discussions.
Initiatives can, then, proceed to the Duma without enjoying the consolidated support of different executive bodies.
As a result of these unresolved policy disputes, Duma bill passage becomes an opportunity for inter-ministerial battles to continue — and not for deputies themselves to scrutinise and amend executive initiatives.
The executive has an interest, of course, in not airing its dirty laundry. And this is when parliamentary correspondents play a key role.
Parliamentary correspondents have been vital actors in shedding light on intra-executive squabbling in the Duma. By drawing on their access, connections, and knowledge of how the lower chamber of the legislature actually works, these correspondents can help bring to light, and make sense of, the sometimes downright odd machinations of legislative life in contemporary Russia.
They also fully appreciate something I have tried to make clear in my own work — that we need to think separately about actors, stages, and venues when analysing lawmaking in Russia.
Deputies themselves might by slavish subalterns, but the legislative stage of policy-making can provide an excellent window onto intra-executive feuds — battles that are often hidden behind the high walls of the Kremlin.
These distinctions might not be immediately obvious. It might take a few moments — or longer — to challenge and reconstruct the usual way we think about nominally democratic institutions in non-democracies (parties, elections, and legislatures).
But we need to challenge these conventional pictures in order to grasp how authoritarian systems actually work.
This discussion all ties into a broader debate from the end of 2017. In light of the allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, some commentators bemoaned the paucity of “real” Russia experts.
This touched on a very real issue: the hollowing out of Russia-focussed university departments, as well as Russian language training.
This post-Cold War de-skilling has had real consequences for the quality of debates either side of the Atlantic on how to engage with Russia.
This is particularly worrying when nuance in commentary on Russia is the basis for accusations of bias.
But some voices have also claimed that the situation isn’t that bad — that there is interesting, important, sophisticated work being done on Russia.
Others, however, have not been similarly enthralled by scholarship on Russia.
The implication is that Russia watchers, journalists, and commentators who follow developments minute by minute, day by day are unlikely to gain much from academic work.
But that conclusion would be wrong.
Much as the spade work and analysis of Russia-focussed journalists helps keep academics up to date, so there is a real place for academic analysis to help inform the work of journalists.
Part of that work involves challenging conventional wisdom. A good example of that is a recently published book edited by the UCLA political scientist, Dan Treisman.
Full disclosure: the book contains a co-authored chapter by me and Ekaterina Schulmann on Russian legislative politics — research, by the way, that would not have been possible without the insights of parliamentary correspondents.
It might be that, more broadly, academics need to do a better job of disseminating their findings to non-academic audiences.
The goal of this post is not to pass judgement on the Slutsky scandal or the media boycott.
Rather, the simple message is that we will miss out on key insights into how politics actually works in contemporary Russia if we simply ignore institutions that are often dismissed as merely democratic window dressing.
As international tensions become increasingly worrying, we need these insights more than ever.