The Jan. 30 meeting of the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament, had barely started when Speaker Valentina Matviyenko declared it a closed session, ordering journalists out of the chamber and cutting the live television feed. Security officers began blocking the doors. One of the senators, a man by the name of Rauf Arashukov, got up from his seat and tried to flee, before being sternly told by the speaker to return to his place. Within minutes, the council unanimously granted a request by law enforcement officials to lift Arashukov’s parliamentary immunity and authorize his arrest.
Later that day, Sen. Arashukov appeared in a Moscow courtroom, charged with two counts of murder and one count of organizing a crime group. Arashukov, who comes from the North Caucasus region of Karachay-Cherkessia, requested an interpreter, citing his imperfect knowledge of Russian — the language he was supposed to have been legislating in for the past two years.
The dramatic arrest had little to do with fighting crime. Sitting in the same chamber and voting to lift Arashukov’s immunity were, among others, Sen. Suleiman Geremeyev, who had been sought for questioning in connection with the 2015 assassination of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov; Sen. Suleiman Kerimov, accused by French prosecutors in 2017 of smuggling suitcases with hundreds of millions of dollars in cash into the country; and Sen. Andrei Turchak, widely believed to have ordered the 2010 near-fatal beating of journalist Oleg Kashin. The men who requested Arashukov’s arrest are hardly custodians of the law, either: Prosecutor General Yuri Chayka has used his position to advance his son’s business interests, while Investigative Committee Chairman Alexander Bastrykin has personally threatened a journalist, for which he was designated by the U.S. and Canadian governments as a gross human rights abuser.
Arashukov’s real offense, in the eyes of the government, seems to be his quarrel with Ramzan Kadyrov, the all-powerful Kremlin viceroy in Chechnya (and a designated human rights abuser himself.) Those who cross Kadyrov’s path are usually forced to undergo the humiliation of a public apology. Arashukov apparently did not take the chance.
Arashukov is now the 17th Russian senator to be convicted, charged, or placed on a wanted list in connection with a crime in the past 10 years. Previous charges against members of the upper house have included murder, rape and money laundering. With only 170 members, the Federation Council appears to have the highest share of criminals of any Russian institution or social group.
Things were once different. Russia’s 1993 constitution envisaged the upper house as a “chamber of regions” that would give voice to the country’s territorial diversity and serve as a moderating influence on the rancorous and politically polarized lower house, the State Duma. The Federation Council was initially made up of directly elected members — two from each region, as in the U.S. Senate. After 1996, its composition changed to regional governors and speakers of the regional legislatures, themselves elected by voters. In the latter half of the 1990s, the council was led by regional heavyweights of different political persuasions but equally powerful stature; the likes of Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev, Nizhny Novgorod Gov. Nemtsov and Sverdlovsk Gov. Eduard Rossel. The chamber provided a check both on the populist initiatives of the Communist-dominated Duma and on overreach by the executive branch.
The upper house became the first victim of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian consolidation. Just days after his inauguration as president in May 2000, he proposed expelling governors and regional speakers from the Federation Council and replacing them with full-time appointees. The council’s rejection of that law was its final act of defiance; after the measure was pushed through, the upper house became, in Nemtsov’s words, “a subsidiary of the presidential administration.”
In most cases, its members have little or no connection with the regions they supposedly represent. A powerful body with the authority to approve military action, confirm the country’s top judges and remove the president from office, the Federation Council has turned into a sinecure for oligarchs and retired officials; a mechanism of immunity for the likes of Kerimov; or a source of political rewards. Among the most recent examples of the latter is Sergey Kislyak, the Kremlin’s former ambassador in Washington who became a household name in the United States after the 2016 election. He now serves as first deputy chairman of the Federation Council’s Foreign Affairs Committee.
The problem is not merely a lack of direct elections; many developed democracies have upper houses whose members are indirectly chosen or appointed. Meanwhile, Russia’s State Duma, supposedly elected by universal suffrage, is currently no more democratic than the Federation Council — although perhaps with a smaller share of murderers and rapists. The problem is the political system, which for decades has been deliberately deprived of pluralism, competition and accountability to citizens. The cruel caricature of a legislative body that is today’s Russian Federation Council is a textbook example of what can happen to institutions once they are hollowed of their meaning.
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