The Russian media has long dubbed Congresses of the ruling United Russia party "Съезды Победителей" ("The Congresses of the Victors") — in a not so subtle allusion to the 17th Congress (1934) of the Communist Party. Although comparing Stalin's VKP(b) to Putin's UR might be a dubious exercise, academically speaking, calling edinorosses victors hardly is. There is little doubt that when United Russia's leadership began, a few months ago, preparing for the last week's 10th Congress, "Съезд Победителей" was exactly a bell ringing in their minds.And, boy, did they have no reasons to feel victorious? A year ago, Russia's most popular politician, Vladimir Putin, came to the party's helm and led it to a whopping 64 percent of the popular vote in the Duma election, giving United Russia the constitutional majority of 315 (of 450) Duma seats. 117 of 168 senators in the Federation Council, the upper chamber of parliament, are members of the party. United Russia has factions in all 83 regional parliaments, and in 79 of them, it holds at least a simple majority.And yet, the mood among 500 delegates of the Congress was far from jubilant. Russia is in the midst of a severe financial crisis, which is rapidly turning into an all-out economic crisis. The victors have suddenly realized that as the "leading political force of the country", it's their job to deal with the crisis and face its inevitably negative political and social consequences.At the centerpiece of the Congress was a speech given by the party's Chairman and the current prime minister, Vladimir Putin. Putin even didn't pretend that he was delivering a "political" speech. It was a tough crisis management talk, and in its intensity, it reminded me of Winston Churchill's inspirational addresses to the nation during the Wold War II.The package of Putin's specific anti-crisis solutions included both liberal, free-market, proposals(reduction in corporate taxes and deregulation of small business) and old-fashioned state intervention aimed at protecting domestic producers, especially in the agrarian sector ("…protectionism, as a temporary measure, is quite acceptable"). What seemed to unite both approaches is the Kremlin's desire to prevent, at any cost, massive job losses due to the economic downturn. Added to that was Putin's promise to increase, effective January 1, unemployment benefits. This gave an impression that it was images of angry crowds of unemployed people splashing into the streets of Russian cities that keeps Putin awake at nights.
It was only at the very end of Putin's speech that he decided to utter a couple of words about "ideology" (although he hadn't used this word at all during his speech) and mentioned briefly United Russia's passion for the "values of Russian patriotism." Here, Putin might have misspoken: according to Boris Gryzlov, the Chairman of United Russia's Supreme Council, the ideology of United Russia is "Russian conservatism."
The 10th Congress has failed again to adopt a new party program, a clear indication of a sense of uncertainty, or even loss, within the party with regards to its ideological identity. For years, edinorosses, ever busy with lobbying for corporate interests, have been able to pretend that talk about "centrism" could replace the need for having a true ideology. Not anymore. As the deep economic crisis is engulfing Russia, United Russia is falling into a deep crisis of its own: a crisis of identity.
In April 2005, 21 representatives of the so-called liberal wing of United Russia issued a manifesto, in which they warned the party and the country about increasing attacks on "liberal values" and growing "authoritarianism and the power of bureaucracy." United Russia's "liberals" called on their colleagues to intensify efforts at developing party program attractive to voters:"We believe that democratic values, civic freedoms, and sovereignty of the country must become ideological basis of the United Russia party."The "liberal revolt" was mercilessly crashed by the party leadership, with victorious Gryzlov having famously noted: "We Bears [United Russia's symbol] need no wings." Does Gryzlov feel victorious today?