Viktor Sheinis and Russia's 1993 Electoral Reform

Gelman V.Ya.


Viktor Sheinis played one of the key roles in transforming Russia's electoral system in the course of the 1993 electoral reform. He proposed and was able to implement a new type of electoral system in Russia — a mixed disconnected electoral system — thus making a significant contribution to Russian electoral and party politics. In terms of building democratic institutions in Russia, electoral reform had a positive impact overall, despite certain drawbacks (disconnected nature of the electoral system, petition mechanism for nominating candidates, insufficient attention to regulating the electoral governance, etc.). This impact could not have been achieved without the effort that Viktor Sheinis put in as a politician and as an expert. He took advantage of the window of opportunity that opened itself to electoral reform in Russia after the dissolution of the parliament in September 1993.

Large-scale reforms of electoral systems are not something that happens often in the modern world. It is even more rare that these reforms are associated with the names of specific politicians and experts. The driving force behind this phenomenon is obvious. Normally, political parties are major agents of political reform, and those parties aimed radical changes of the established "rules of the game" only under special circumstances. An exception to this rule was the wave of electoral reforms that emerged in the early 1990s after the collapse of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and Eurasia. However, even in these countries electoral reforms were largely of an impersonal nature. While electoral reforms in Poland, Hungary or Czechoslovakia (before its dissolution) came as a result of bargaining between post-Communist and the Communist successor parties [3; 8], the new ruling elites in a number of Eurasian countries from Belarus to Kazakhstan after the collapse of the Soviet Union, attempted to preserve electoral systems they had inherited from the Soviet era.

Against this background, the case of the 1993 electoral reform in Russia stands out as an exception. First, this reform was largely a by-product of the conflict between the president and the Russian parliament, rather than of inter-party negotiations. Second, for this reform, with all its advantages and disadvantages, Russia is essentially indebted to a single reformer, namely, Viktor Sheinis. Without his major contribution, not only the basic contours but also many details of the Russian electoral system would inevitably have acquired a strikingly different nature, and the features of the Russian State Duma and Russia’s party system in the 1990-2000s would have been completely different.

To a certain extent, Sheinis turned out to be the main reformer of the Russian electoral system by pure coincidence. His previous academic career had nothing to do with electoral research (which did not exist in the USSR). Sheinis spent many years as a successful researcher of political economy of the Third World countries, gaining public recognition during the perestroika era as a columnist and pundit who became visible due to his thoughtful and solid analysis of the current political problems of the Soviet Union. Sheinis' subsequent path to parliamentary politics (which he himself described in detail [11: Vol. 1]) was paved through political clubs [12] and his subsequent nomination and election to the Congress of People's Deputies and later to the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR. Such a path was somewhat typical for a number of other "Sixtiers" — intellectuals of the perestroika period. However, while some of these individuals returned to their previous careers in academia and cultural milieu and/or became disillusioned with politics after August 1991, Sheinis, on the contrary, was actively involved in building democratic institutions throughout the 1990s, being one of the best educated and professionally qualified Russian politicians of his time (and beyond).

While in the early 1990s, Russian economists were already developing an understanding of market transformations (albeit partial and incomplete) [14], knowledge about political institutions and their effects was largely lacking in Russia, since political science had only just been officially recognized as a discipline during the perestroika period and had not yet had time to establish itself. For this reason, Russian reformers had to tackle many challenges of political transformation on the spot, acting partially on a hunch and partially depending on the current state of affairs in the country. There was another important factor. Unlike in the Eastern European countries, the process of party building in Russia was "frozen" following the events of August 1991 [7]. The absence of elections made it impossible for new parties to become significant political actors in the transformation process. Built on a non-partisan basis, the coalitions of both supporters and opponents of the Russian president and government were rather incoherent, while the actual parties had no significant role in political decision-making. It is hardly surprising that the process of creating new political institutions in Russia almost inevitably turned out to be heavily personalized. In a situation like this, Viktor Sheinis happened to have just the right expertise to become the "founding father" of the Russian electoral system, combining the roles of a politician and a scholar and expert.

Electoral reform: the "success story" of Viktor Sheinis

The starting point for Russian electoral reform was the electoral system that Russia inherited from the 1990 elections to the Congress of People's Deputies of the RSFSR, that is, majority voting in single-seat constituencies. Like other observers of Russian politics, Sheinis could clearly see its shortcomings: such an electoral system did not create significant incentives for party building and doomed the parliament to a weak and manipulated political environment [11: Vol. 2]. At the same time, the incumbent members of the Russian parliament, like their colleagues in many other countries, had no serious incentives for electoral reform: they were primarily interested in being re-elected in the forthcoming elections, and preservation of the existing electoral system suited these interests best. Their aspirations were reflected in the law on elections that was drafted in 1992–1993 by the corresponding committee of the Supreme Soviet of Russia under the leadership of Viktor Balala. This draft law essentially secured the existing two-round system of majority voting in single-seat constituencies.

The alternative to this project was indeed revolutionary. It was developed and proposed in the spring-summer of 1993 by Sheinis and a "team" of associates that included many highly qualified lawyers, historians, and experts in country studies (Sheinis had two particularly notable assistants — Alexander Sobyanin and Oleg Kayunov). The introduction of the election of half of the deputies in a nationwide federal constituency not only radically changed the "rules of the game" in Russian electoral politics, but also brought about a transformation of both the lower house of parliament and Russia's party system.

In his two-volume analytical memoir, "Vzlet i padenie parlamenta: perelomnye gody v rossiiskoi politike (1985-1993) (The Rise and Fall of Parliament: The Breakthrough Years in Russian Politics (1985–1993))", Sheinis scrutinizes the development and adoption of electoral rules and regulations that were used for the State Duma election in December 1993. The whole process is described in a standalone chapter [11: Vol. 2, Ch. 23]. The paradox of the reform aimed at democratizing the Russia's electoral and party system was that it would hardly have been possible under conditions of democracy. It is most likely that in the course of the routine voting procedure in the Supreme Soviet, Viktor Balala's alternative would have been adopted as a basis — an alternative that was aimed at maintaining the political status quo in parliament and placing high barriers on the way to establishing a new party system. This is evidenced by the case of Ukraine, where the 1994 Verkhovna Rada election was held under such an electoral system. 168 out of 338 deputies elected in the first two rounds were "independent" (non-partisan), the Communist Party of Ukraine (which was the largest at the time) had only a quarter of the seats filled in the parliament, and another quarter of the seats were distributed among 13 other parties [1]. It is noteworthy that Ukraine also switched to a mixed electoral system in the next elections to the Verkhovna Rada in 1998, largely adopting the electoral formula that had been introduced in Russia in 1993 through the Sheinis reform.

At the same time, the proposal to reserve half of the parliamentary seats for lists of parties that had not yet been created caused misunderstanding and/or resistance among a significant part of Russian politicians who spoke from reformist positions. Sheinis himself, along with fellow members of the "Soglasiye radi progressa" ("Consensus for Progress") faction at the Congress of People's Deputies of Russia, opposed the dissolution of the Congress and the Supreme Soviet, which took place on September 21, 1993. However, one should admit that these events, which became an important step on the way to the subsequent authoritarian transformation of the country [4], opened a window of opportunity for electoral reform in Russia that otherwise might have remained closed for a long time, if not forever.

One has to give credit to the efforts of Sheinis, who systematically promoted his electoral reform proposal both among the Russian political class and in the media over the course of the summer and autumn of 1993. When considering these efforts from today's perspective, one can say that Sheinis dominated the agenda-setting in favor of his draft, while Viktor Balala's alternative proposal was largely discredited by the very fact that its supporters belonged to the camp of Yeltsin's opponents. More importantly, amid the institutional uncertainty that emerged in Russia shortly after the dissolution of parliament, it was Sheinis, with the support of his allies in the Yeltsin camp, who made great efforts to squeeze his project through several barriers. On two occasions, he managed to overcome the resistance of officials from the presidential administration, who actively attempted to make fundamental distortions of Sheinis' proposal, reducing the share of seats in the proportional part of electoral formula from 1/2 to 1/3 of the total number of seats. Such a decline threatened to deal a serious blow to parties as major actors in parliamentary politics and markedly limit their influence in elections — incentives to build strong and sustainable parties could be undermined. According to Sheinis' own testimony, it was Yeltsin, who ultimately had the final say as the struggle ran its course. Only after Yeltsin had been personally assured by Sergei Kovalev on September 30, 1993, that "the introduction of a proportional system would give the democrats a chance to win," did he give the go-ahead to implement the electoral reform in its original design [11: Vol. 2, 619]. As is well known, these expectations were not materialized during the December 1993 elections, after which Sheinis lost his access to Yeltsin forever, and the Russian electoral formula later on (in 1994–1995) became the object of a new series of attacks by the presidential administration (it also proved unsuccessful, but this time for different reasons). It is no exaggeration to say that Sheinis, solely due to his persistence and perseverance, was able to almost fully implement the electoral reform he had proposed, despite the fact that the conditions for its implementation in 1993 were very unfavorable. This case remains unique not only in modern Russian history, but also in a comparative perspective.

The essential institutional elements of the 1993 Russian electoral reform — the allocation of 50% of seats among political parties, the plurality voting in single-member districts, and the 5% threshold — have largely remained in place three decades later, with some important changes. At the same time, the political component of the electoral reform has changed dramatically, and from a mechanism of free and fair elections (which Sheinis made efforts to achieve) today the Russian electoral system has become a tool of electoral authoritarianism — something that the author of electoral reform was quite unhappy about, and which reflected in his writings [10]. However, all these transformations had nothing to do with the actual content of the 1993 reform. That is why, thirty years after the electoral reform, it is worth assessing not so much the subsequent changes in the electoral system in the course of autocratization of Russian politics in the 2000s-2020s [4: Ch. 4–5], but rather its immediate effects in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Electoral reform: pro et contra

Following the first two cycles of the 1993 and 1995 State Duma elections, it became clear that the Russian electoral reform was rather successful, and theoretical expectations of institutional changes were generally met [5; 7]. However, its political consequences were far from the hopes of Sheinis and many other politicians who supported the reform. A large share of deputies elected under the proportional part of the electoral system contributed to the transformation of parties into key actors in parliamentary politics; this very fact became the most important incentive for party building. It also contributed both to the increase of party fragmentation (a feature of a number of post-Communist countries) and to the high ideological polarization of the Russian party system. At the same time, local notables with ties to subnational elites benefited from plurality voting in single-member districts. These notables typically held moderate ideological positions, and the ideological polarization of the party system was thereby somewhat balanced. Lastly, the 5% threshold in Russia (as in a number of other post-Communist countries) became a reliable filter at the stage of party system formation, which allowed to keep marginal parties and politicians out of political representation, despite the fact that the share of votes cast for these parties was quite high (over 46% in the 1995 Duma election). After the 1999 election, which marked the third time that the same electoral system had been used in a row [9], these trends appeared to become entrenched in Russia's party system. As a result, the main task of the electoral reform of 1993 was accomplished rather successfully.

At the same time, the electoral reform of 1993 contained a considerable number of shortcomings and flaws, some of which later on institutionalized after the adoption of the laws "On Basic Guarantees of Electoral Rights of Citizens of the Russian Federation" (1994) and a number of other electoral laws (1995–1999). The most notable shortcomings and flaws are as follows.

First, the disconnected nature of Russia's mixed electoral formula, which was first tested in the 1993 elections and remains in place to this day. Although Sheinis, in his own words, used the case of (West) Germany as a model for electoral reform [11: Vol. 2, 584], his knowledge of the mechanisms of functioning of the German electoral system at the time of the 1993 reform was clearly insufficient. Sheinis himself reluctantly referred to this fact, but I can testify that he learned about the differences between connected and disconnected mixed electoral systems only after being an observer at the Bundestag elections in the autumn of 1994. However, at that time there was too late of making fundamental changes in the electoral system. As a result, the institutional transfer of the electoral formula from Germany to Russia turned out to be incomplete, which affected its political effects. The introduction of disconnected electoral formula in Russia resulted in a proliferation of "independent" nonpartisan deputies (130 deputies in 1993 and 77 deputies in 1995). The disconnected electoral formula not only substantially obstructed the structuring of the party system, but also made independent deputies subject to various manipulations on the part of the presidential administration [11: V. 2, 581], and later, after the 2003 State Duma election, led to their mass co-optation into United Russia. To be fair, it should be noted that a number of other post-Communist countries (Bulgaria, Georgia, Lithuania) used the mixed disconnected electoral system as well, and as a result, post-Communist politicians were not able to fully utilize the advantages of the German electoral system.

Second, the petition principle of nominating candidates and party lists, which was originally proposed by Sheinis in the earliest drafts of the electoral reform proposal, turned out to be a very dubious tool. On the one hand, it did not prevent political entrepreneurs who had substantial resources to collect signatures of voters in support of the nomination from enforcing this requirement by all available means (including coercion and fraud). On the other hand, granting election commissions the right to verify these signatures created incentives for numerous abuses of this right. It would seem that introducing the electoral deposit as the main and only instrument for nominating candidates and lists (widely practiced in a number of other countries) was a perfectly feasible innovation in 1993, but Sheinis and his team missed the opportunity. The electoral deposit was only introduced into the legislation as an additional (alternative) nomination mechanism in 1999, following extensive deliberation. However, this legislative norm was abolished as early as in 2009. As it appears, Sheinis and his associates were largely guided by the experience (including their own) of numerous petition campaigns of the perestroika period, when the abundance of signatures of citizens in support of certain public initiatives served as indirect evidence of mass support — at times, ignoring these signatures was problematic for the authorities. However, extrapolating the previous petitioning record onto the reality of a new, post-perestroika Russia was misleading, so the introduction of a petitioning mechanism into electoral practice after 1993 produced quite the opposite effect despite the good intentions of the supporters of this initiative.

Third, Sheinis and his team made the promotion of a mixed electoral formula their priority, thus failing to consider a number of other aspects of electoral reform. In particular, the aspects of electoral governance, which are no less important from the point of view of ensuring the integrity and transparency of elections, ended up on the fringes of the reform. Some of these aspects in the 1993 State Duma election regulations were prescribed only in the most general form, some of them were not initially considered by reformers as of primary importance, and some of them were corrupted as a result of amendments to the text of the election regulations made by the lawyers of the presidential administration [5]. These included major elements of the electoral process such as campaign financing, regulation of media coverage of elections, resolution of electoral disputes, and publication of vote returns. The problems caused by defects in the regulation of the electoral process first manifested themselves soon after the 1993 State Duma elections. The incomplete publication of election results and the refusal of the Central Election Commission to publicly release the data resulted in accusations of election fraud during elections and the simultaneous 1993 constitutional referendum [13], which, in turn, became the subject of subsequent discussions by specialists [2]. Some of these shortcomings and defects were eliminated in the wake of corrections of errors in subsequent rounds of legislative amendments (in particular, the norm on mandatory publication of complete vote returns was introduced). But some of the innovations introduced in the course of the 1993 electoral reform — especially in terms of media regulations and campaign financing — proved to be irreversible, serving as the legal basis for many electoral manipulations both during the 1990s [6] and particularly during the subsequent authoritarian transformations of Russian electoral politics.

In many respects, these shortcomings and flaws of the 1993 electoral reform in Russia were inevitable. The drafts of electoral regulations were hastily prepared and adopted, and many proposals turned out to be improvisational, which resulted in ill-considered decisions and unintended consequences. The fact that discussions of electoral reform at all stages of its development [11: Vol. 2, Ch. 23] were political rather than expert in nature, and relied on imperfect knowledge of international experience (as the example of the mixed disconnected electoral formula demonstrates), also played a significant role. To the credit of Sheinis and his team, they tried their best to eliminate a number of shortcomings and flaws of the electoral reform during their work in the State Duma, but by that time their opportunities were much more limited than before the adoption of the 1993 election regulations. It is unlikely that perfect institutional changes in general and electoral reforms in particular occur anywhere in the world. Therefore, considering the context Russia's post-communist transformations, the contribution of the 1993 electoral reform to the development of democratic institutions in Russia can be assessed as a solid "B" grade. To a great extent, Russia owes this result to Viktor Sheinis.

Lessons learned from electoral reform

Looking at it from the fall of 2023, Russia's 1993 electoral reform appears an episode from quite a distant past. Indeed, the development of democratic institutions, which Sheinis and his associates worked on, has been reversed. This means that a new round of democratization, if and when it occurs in Russia, will require not less, but even greater efforts to develop new democratic institutions, including the Russian electoral system. In this respect, reflecting on the experience of the 1993 electoral reform is useful not only in retrospect, but also as a source of lessons for the future. There are at least some lessons to learn.

First of all, the traditional division of labor between experts, who prepare proposals and plans for reforms, and politicians, who make key decisions and implement these plans, does not work in conditions of truly radical reforms. Sometimes it is necessary for successful transformations that the same reformers combine the roles of both politicians and experts (this necessary condition is not always sufficient, though). It is no coincidence that the a number of reformers in post-Communist countries came to politics from the academic world (such as Leszek Balcerowicz, Václav Klaus, and Yegor Gaidar). The name of Sheinis, whose academic and political experience luckily intertwined in the 1990s, can be confidently included among such reformers. He and his associates developed projects of Russian electoral reform and implemented them themselves. It is likely that if Sheinis had played only one role — that of a politician or an expert — the electoral reform in Russia would have been carried out differently, and its results would have been quite different as well. The crucial lesson is that the direct involvement of experts in policy- and decision-making is often, though not always, justified.

When implementing large-scale institutional changes, compromises in the wake of preparation, adoption and implementation of political decisions at all stages of reforms are inevitable. However, too many compromises dilute the essence of the proposed changes and/or make them unsuccessful. Historical experience in Russia is full of such examples, and this risk was also quite feasible during the 1993 electoral reform. It is worth noting the principled approach that Viktor Sheinis took. While promoting the electoral reform project, he was ready to sacrifice minor details of his proposal, but fundamentally and consistently defend the main element of the reform — the mixed electoral formula — and sought to use all the means available to him in this struggle. The ability to implement one's plans is not always inherent in either experts or politicians. In this respect, Sheinis offered a lesson in just how important for reformers not to retreat in the face of misunderstanding and/or rejection of their projects, and how important it is to skillfully use suddenly opened windows of opportunity to advance their initiatives.

Finally, an extremely important aspect of any institutional change is both the quality of expertise and the quality of discussions of proposals at the initial stage. Far from being electoral reform experts (there was simply no room for such specialists in Russia in the early 1990s), Sheinis and his associates acted largely by trial and error, trying to rely on clearly incomplete knowledge, partly reinventing the wheel and overlooking many significant details. They learned from their own mistakes, though many of them were far from inevitable. Therefore, another lesson to be learned from the experience of the 1993 Russian electoral reform is that projects and plans for institutional change need to be prepared in advance and professionally, perhaps long before it is time to put them into practice.

To be fair, over the past three decades the Russian expert community has done a lot to better understand various aspects of institutional change and electoral reforms. Research and education in political science have played and continue to play a vital role in laying the foundations for professional expertise in electoral politics and beyond, and may become the basis for preparing future transformations. It would not be an exaggeration to say that three decades after the turbulent and controversial period of reforms of the 1990s, in the 2020s Russia is intellectually much better prepared for building of democratic institutions than in the early 1990s, despite the fact that the political conditions for this process are notoriously unfavorable and the prospects for Russia's democratization seem almost unthinkable to many observers. Therefore, the lessons of political reforms of the 1990s (including electoral reform) will be in demand, and they will also be reconsidered by the next generations of politicians and experts. The only question is when, under what conditions and in what way this reconsideration will take place.

Received 09.09.2023, revision received 25.09.2023.


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