In the weeks after the Russian parliamentary elections of 17 December last year, the view of the results that prevailed in official and businesscircles could be summarized as follows: ‘Nothing terrible has happened, and there won’t be big changes.’ Evidence that this view was shared by the Russian business elite was provided by the relative stability of the dollar exchange rate. This not only failed to burst out of the ‘rouble corridor’ after the elections, but did not even move significantly within the bounds which the corridor imposes on it.

It is revealing that the leaders of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (kprf) did not expect any marked changes to follow the elections either. The Communist Party leaders spoke only of the need for the course of official policy to be corrected. The truth, however, is that very dramatic changes lie ahead. The relationship of political forces has altered, along with their degree of influence and their structural coherence. These changes have been so far-reaching that the dynamic of the political process will inevitably change as well. All the old schemes will turn to dust, and completely new situations will arise.

The first result of the elections will be the consolidation, growth and internal structural development of the ‘big four’ parties that were victorious in the elections. So far there are no grounds for stating that the fragmentation of the political spectrum and the mosaic-like character of Russian politics has been fully overcome. Apart from the ‘big four’—the Communist Party, Our Home is Russia (ndr), Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (ldpr), and Yabloko—a series of other parties, none of which surmounted the 5 per cent barrier, will also be represented in parliament as a result of having won seats in single-member constituencies. There is no reason to think that the development of a multi-party system will be limited to the swallowing of these minor formations by the ‘big four’. To some degree this process will occur, first of all on the level of the parliamentary fractions, but at the same time there will be fusions between small parties trying to avoid being ingested by the largest groups. The result could be the emergence of six or seven parties or blocs operating over Russia as a whole, whileall the others gradually wither or are forced off the political stage. If this does not amount to the ‘Europeanization’ of the Russian political system, then at least a degree of order and rationality will have been introduced into it.

Unlike the triumph of the Liberal Democratic Party in 1993, the Communist Party’s victory was not the result of a successful television campaign. The gains for the Communists resulted from serious organizational work in the provinces and from shifts in popular consciousness. The swing to the Left has mainly benefited the largest left party, to a degree even at the expense of other leftists.

The advances made by the Communist Party were relatively even, with dramatic gains even in traditionally anti-communist districts. In the Kuzbass coal region the Communist Party scored a sweeping victory, winning four out of five deputies’ mandates—this outcome is explained partly by the popularity of local political leader, Aman Tuleev, who ran on the Communist list. In Moscow, the 15 per cent vote for the party is evidence of important shifts within the middle layers of the population: here the Communist Party managed to outstrip Yegor Gaidar’s party, Russia’s Democratic Choice, even though Moscow represented Gaidar’s last bastion. The only reason why the Communist Party’s success in the capital did not extend to victories in the single-member constituencies was that the Communists proved unable to field candidates who satisfied the demands of the politically sophisticated Muscovites.

One is forced to conclude that the electoral law, criticized so often both before and during the elections, worked surprisingly well. The task of any electoral system is to ensure a real preponderance for the victors—the principle of governability—while at the same time ensuring the presence in the parliament of all the other forces which enjoy significant support—the principle of representativeness. These two requirements contradict one another, and in every country the task of the authors of the electoral law is to seek a compromise between them. It might be said that the application in practice of the Russian electoral law allowed this compromise to be achieved, though in a somewhat unexpected manner. The proportional system, which was intended to ensure the representation of minorities, in fact guaranteed a strong preponderance of the largest parties, which benefited from the dividing up of the votes cast for groups which failed to cross the 5 per cent barrier. The ‘booty’ that went to the victors amounted to almost half the number of votes cast for the party lists, something which in Europe is typical only of countries with a clearly expressed majoritarian system. Meanwhile, in the single-member constituencies, where the majoritarian system operates, and which is supposed to strengthen the positions of the largest parties, numerous representatives of small parties and ‘outsider’ movements were elected. Almost all the parties and groups which had even a minimal number of supporters thus finished with representation in the Duma. Russia once again proved its uniqueness.

Although the electoral system functions in a manner quite different from those in Europe, one cannot deny the ‘civilizing’ effect of the electoral law, which punished politicians for arrogant and irresponsible behaviour. At the same time, it cannot be said that electors who gave their votes to the minority parties were punished. This latter point becomes clearer if we reflect that Russian politics features the interplay of five main currents: nationalists, conservatives, liberals, centrists and leftists. It is these currents, rather than the parties, that provide the basis for political delineations and for the structuring of public opinion. The 1995 elections saw all five currents win representation in the Duma, almost in direct proportion to their popularity among the electors. The overall number of Duma seats won by the Communist Party, the Agrarians and other leftists was in line with the combined percentage of votes that went to all the left candidates and blocs—that is, the Communist Party, Toiling Russia, Power to the People and the Agrarian Party. Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party, in turn, received additional seats at the expense of Alexander Rutskoi’s Derzhava (Great Power) and the Congress of Russian Communities (kro). The combined proportion of Duma positions won by Our Home is Russia and Yabloko was close to the overall percentage of votes cast for all the liberal or conservative—pro-government or ‘Westernizing’, to use different terminology—right-wing groups, that is, Our Home is Russia, Yabloko, Russia’s Democratic Choice, Common Cause, the Party of Russian Unity and Accord, and Forward Russia!