US, NGO and Russian efforts to build effective political parties in Russia have met with limited success. Despite the clear potential for Russian parties to foster elite cooperation over policy solutions and popular control of government, elections have revealed parties to be little more than temporary campaign organizations for ambitious elites in Moscow and in the regions. Underdeveloped parties create the danger that Russian voters will become disaffected by the growing gap between state and society and the lack of governmental response to voter concerns, eroding public support for democracy.
As a result of lagging party development, the Russian democratic experiment remains fragile and demands serious, sustained attention. I advocate adopting more realistic measures to monitor democratic development. Election results and turnout numbers are not timely indicators of the state of Russian democracy. Once we observe large declines in turnout, a crisis is likely well underway; clearly if elections are cancelled, crisis has occurred. Rather than accept these limited indicators, we should view the effects of elections through the lens of party organizations to judge the long-term effects of competition and enhance our capacity to anticipate political developments. Importantly, a pro-active understanding of these effects will direct attention toward concrete steps to remedy the problem. The key to realizing the party system's potential to foster deepening of democracy in Russia is to increase incentives for political elites to invest political and economic resources in party structures. […]