The history of Russian parliamentarism
The history of Russian parliamentarism
Russia’s history of representative bodies spans hundreds of years.
In ancient times, the Veche – an assembly of townspeople that addressed common causes and made decisions to tackle pressing issues – would convene in Russian towns.
In the Middle Ages, starting in the 16th century, the Zemsky Sobor (“Assembly of the Land”) – the assembly of representatives of all free social groups of the Tsardom of Russia, which discussed political, economic and administrative issues – was periodically called.
At the start of the 19th century, Alexander I of Russia (who reigned as Emperor from 1801 to 1825) initiated a state reorganization project, which for the first time ever postulated the need for the establishment of essential institutions of state power – the State Council and the State Duma. At that time, the idea of the State Duma remained on paper only, whereas the State Council was set up and became the only supreme state advisory body to the Tsar for many decades. Nevertheless, the step had been taken. These ideas, these institutions emerged and remain embedded in the history of Russian parliamentarism and parliamentary practice to the present day.
Under Emperor Alexander II of Russia (who reigned from 1855 to 1881), work to establish representative institutions took a practical path: district (“uezd”) and governorate land assemblies were created to subsequently become sources of manpower for future parliamentary institutions. In the final years of the reformer-tsar’s life, the idea of a bicameral nationwide state advisory body was very close to becoming a reality: the respective draft constitutional act was approved by Alexander II, but his death at the hands of terrorists thwarted those plans.
In the 20th century, a full-fledged parliament was established in Russia, to work on a permanent professional basis. Emperor Nicholas II (who reigned from 1894 to 1917) signed the Manifesto Calling the First Duma (on 6 August 1905), founding the State Duma (lower chamber), to which elections were first held in the spring of 1906. Its first sitting was organized on 27 April 1906 – this day is currently celebrated as the Day of Russian Parliamentarism. Pursuant to a decree of Emperor Nicholas II, the State Council was vested with powers that corresponded to the traditional functions of upper chambers of parliaments in both their representative and law-making activities. The State Council subsequently turned from an advisory institution into a law-making one. During the next 11 years, the State Council remained a stronghold of stability in the vortex of political cataclysms that shocked Russia, with dissolutions of the State Duma and military and revolutionary events.
Draft laws were adopted by the State Duma and after that were submitted to the State Council, which was obliged to consider them, but was under no such obligation to agree with the lower chamber and could dismiss the draft laws submitted.
The concept of the indivisibility and integrity of the centuries-long process of national history is taking roots in Russian society. An increasingly deeper understanding of a simple truth has been established: a nation is a unity of generations in time. Therefore, the succession of Russian power in the matters of the country’s development, the assertion of its historical path and responsibility for the fate of future generations has always remained the unyielding component of the very foundation of the Russian national idea. Despite the fact that some scientists and experts believe that the history of representative bodies of the Soviet period cannot be considered a formal continuation of the previous history of Russian parliamentarism, their experience is crucial to citizens of contemporary Russia, the more so because the bicameral principle has been implemented in the activity of the supreme representative body of Soviet power. The succession of the forms of public administration de jure continued its existence.
Since 1924, legislative and representative functions in the USSR, which included Soviet Russia, were combined within the Congress of Soviets, which formed two chambers for its everyday operation – the Soviet of the Union, in which the union republics were represented proportionally to their respective populations, and the Soviet of Nationalities, which was formed based on the following pattern: five deputies from each union republic (irrespective of population size) and one deputy from each autonomous region or autonomous republic.
The Constitution of 1936 replaced the two-step elections to the chambers with direct elections; however, the bicameral principle was preserved. A mechanism of conciliation procedures was envisaged in the event that there were differences between the chambers, and both chambers could be dissolved if they failed to reach a compromise.
In 1989, the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union that had been established in 1936 was replaced with a fundamentally new body – the Congress of Peoples’ Deputies of the USSR and the permanent Supreme Soviet, which also consisted of two chambers. In the spring of 1990, following the first democratic elections in the Soviet period, a new supreme public authority emerged – the Congress of Peoples’ Deputies of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic with the bicameral Supreme Soviet (Soviet of the Republic and the Soviet of Nationalities). As a permanent body, it was supposed to become a legislative, administrative and supervisory authority at the same time. Therefore, the bicameral concept, which was originally suggested by Mikhail Speransky, had been firmly established in Russia. Russia’s historical experience to a great extent predetermined the bicameral structure of the parliament, which was established back in the Constitution of 1993.
At both the beginning and the end of the 20th century, the evolution of the parliamentarian system in Russia witnessed grave nationwide crises, which naturally left their mark on the newly established parliamentary institutions and their interaction with the other authorities. Given the historical circumstances, it would be safe to assume that Russia paid the full price for parliamentarism as a state system.
The constitutional powers of the chambers of the Federal Assembly in many respects determine the procedure for their establishment. The State Duma ensures the direct representation of the population – all of its social strata and political parties. Therefore, the composition of the chamber reflects political views and preferences of citizens. The Council of the Federation is the chamber that ensures representation of the constituent entities of the Russian Federation.
National and foreign experience shows that amid rapidly changing political and socioeconomic parameters, parliament cannot afford to stop its development progress. The changing living environment inevitably calls for the further evolution of government institutions. Specifically, it is one of the reasons why the Council of the Federation and the State Duma repeatedly changed the procedure for its formation following 1993, while staying within the framework of the current constitutional model. The second reason is connected with the first – the constant search for optimal legal mechanisms that enable Russian citizens to engage more actively in the process of delegating their representatives to the Russian parliament. Possibilities are further explored to increase the effectiveness of the constitutional powers of the chambers of the Russian parliament and new forms of operation.
The stage has been set – Russia has created a stable system of representative bodies of all levels and formed the foundations of parliamentary law. Crucial decision-making based upon open and substantive discussions corresponds fully to the centuries-old traditions of the peoples of Russia and values of Russian civilization. Parliament has become an important factor of stabilization for Russian society. It is not a printing press that churns out laws, but an arena for political dialogue, in which various political parties are involved, where diverse opinions clash, and where the voice of the opposition is heard.
Contemporary Russian parliament is clearly a success as a collector and mouthpiece of the interests of Russian society, which then transforms them into political will. In the 21st century, an effective state envisions the constant development and improvement of the parliamentary system. It is a prerequisite for the formation of a regulatory framework on the federal and regional levels that is adequate to new conditions and challenges. The current mission of parliamentarism is to ensure the stability and sustainability of the country’s political and social development. Therefore, MPs, whatever their political bias, must do their utmost for parliamentary institutions to remain understandable and useful to the people.
A peculiarity of Russia as a federative state is its two-tier parliamentary system. In addition to the federal parliament, 85 constituent entities of the Federation have their own parliaments. The constituent entities of the Federation independently tackle issues within their jurisdiction.
The country has established a state system that meets all of the contemporary criteria of parliamentarism. It is, without exaggeration, a historical achievement on the part of Russia and its national legacy. Contemporary Russia has an effective parliament, the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation. It has been established as a self-sustained institution that is independent of the other branches of power. It is the Federal Assembly and its chambers — the Council of the Federation and the State Duma — that is the supreme authority in the development and adoption of laws, which are ultimately approved by the President of the Russian Federation.
Russia is the largest federation globally. It unites many dozens of regions and people of hundreds of nationalities, who live in vast areas in diverse natural conditions – from the Arctic tundra to the subtropics. The wealth and variety of the cultures of the Russian people is truly infinite! To embrace and unite this diversity in harmony is a real challenge.
Parliamentarism as a principle and form of political life is not limited by the boundaries of a single state. It is implemented in bilateral and multilateral inter-parliamentary relationships and international organizations. It influences them and is affected by them at the same time. In this respect, it is hard to overestimate the significance that the work of Russian MPs in the Interparliamentary Assembly of Member Nations of the Commonwealth of Independent States has for Russian parliamentarism and its development and further reinforcement.
A priority area for the inter-parliamentary cooperation of the Council of the Federation is the development of bilateral and multilateral cooperation with the parliaments of the member states of the Commonwealth of Independent States. The structural and conceptual proximity of the legislations of the CIS member states that emerged through years of efforts of the Interparliamentary Assembly has contributed enormously to the establishment of such significant international institutions as the Eurasian Economic Union, the Customs Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization within historically short periods of time.
Since its inception, the Interparliamentary Assembly has evolved into a reputable international organization and proven its relevance not only within the Commonwealth, but also beyond it. An important partner of the Interparliamentary Assembly is the United Nations, along with many of its centres and organizations, as well as the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), the Council of Europe, the Latin American Parliament, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation, the Central American Parliament, the Pan African Parliament, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and many other international organizations.
St Petersburg, the cradle of contemporary Russian parliamentarism, warmly welcomes the participants in the 137th IPU Assembly!