Pushing the war with Georgia and the financial crisis aside, the Russian political beau monde went into the business of … well, politicking. The month of October may see a record number of political parties ceasing to exist.
In a few days, an emergency congress of the Agrarian Party of Russia will approve its leadership's decision to merge with United Russia. This merger isn't about ideology (as if United Russia has one), for, ideologically, the Agrarians are much closer to the Communists. But they also have a constituency: large, mostly state-owned, agricultural businesses, whose interests will be better represented from within the "party of power."
The timing of the merger, announced shortly after Russia had effectively terminated its bid to join the WTO, is hardly coincidental. Quotes for agricultural imports have been a major sticking point in Russia's negotiations with the WTO. Staying outside the WTO is highly beneficial to domestic food producers, and the Agrarians' decision to join ranks with the edinorosses was their way of saying thank you.
Although the Agrarians seem to benefit most from the deal, United Russia is also getting something in return. The Agrarian Party is a force to be reckoned with in a number of Central Russia's regions. The merger will solidify United Russia's standing there — obviously, at the expense of its major competitor, the Communist Party.
There is one more reason why the Agrarians are about to surrender their independence, and it has nothing to do with ideology, either. Each political party that gained less than 3% of the vote in the 2007 Duma election has to ultimately pay for using free media time during the course of the election campaign. The debt, which must be repaid by the beginning of December, is usually running up to 150-180 million rubles ($6-7M). One way of not paying the money, which most of the small parties have no means of doing anyway, is to "disappear" as a political party: either by "downgrading" to the status of "public movement" or by merging with other parties.
Last week, the theater of absurd that the world of Russia's domestic politics has become, produced a fresh episode of the never-ending soap opera "Russian liberals, unite!" In a bizarre twist of events, the script of the last episode is rumored to have been written by the Kremlin.
First, the Political Council of the Union of Right Forces(SPS) has voted to disband the party. Shortly, it was announced that in a process reportedly promoted by the presidential administration, SPS will become part of a new "liberal" project composed also of two political dwarfs, the Democratic Party of Russia and Civil Force.
The dissolution of SPS is a logical outcome for the organization that has finally collapsed under the burden of internal squabbling and indiscriminate prostituting of its own principles. But why would the Kremlin want to keep afloat a bunch of "me too" political amateurs from the DPR and CF?
Russia isn't short of professional politicians with liberal views and experience in real governance. The Krasnoyarsk region's governor, Alexander Khloponin, and Duma deputies, Vladislav Reznik and Vladimir Pligin, immediately spring to mind. If the Kremlin is serious about creating a viable liberal party, these folks should be allowed to leave United Russia and form a new structure (as they wanted a few years ago).
On the other hand, will United Russia survive being deprived of the few bright minds it has?…
Meanwhile, defying the notion that Russia's political business is all about M&A, one IPO has also been announced. Former Soviet Union President, Mikhail Gorbachev, and banker Alexander Lebedev, have made public their plan to create a new social-democratic party.
Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev is a good man. His energy, passion for new projects, and desire to stay relevant are amazing, given his age (Gorbachev is 77). It's just too bad that his time has gone, but I'm not going to tell him that. Quite to the contrary, I wish Mikhail Sergeevich all the best in this new endeavor.
Alexander Lebedev is a somewhat different story. His interest in promoting ideas of social democracy isn't obvious. What is obvious is Lebedev's desire to become Mayor of Moscow (in 2003, he ran against Luzhkov and lost). To buttress his political resume, in 2003, Lebedev became Duma deputy on the Rodina ticket. When Rodina fell out with the Kremlin, he bolted and joined United Russia. Having realized that the United Russia membership won't help him to unseat Luzhkov, Lebedev left United Russia and eventually joined Just Russia.
Is it too cynical to interpret Lebedev's latest move as a maneuvering before another shot at the mayorship? The timing is telling, given that Luzhkov's term expires in December.
On the other hand, if Lebedev is cheating us, he's doing that with his own money.