On Jan. 21, 2005, something unprecedented happened in the Russian State Duma: five deputies from the Rodina faction, headed by its leader, Dmitry Rogozin, entered Rogozin’s spacious office in the Duma building – where five air-mattresses were waiting for them – and went on hunger strike. The strikers demanded that President Vladimir Putin immediately suspended the implementation of the law on monetization of social benefits (a.k.a. Bill 122) and fired the Minister of Social Welfare Mikhail Zurabov. An installed camera was broadcasting the event live on the Rodina party website.
The hunger strike that lasted 11 days and resulted in hospitalization of one of its participants became a high point in the controversy over the notorious Bill 122. It also became the beginning of the end of the Rodina party and – as many believed back then – was to mark the end of Rogozin’s then-promising political career.
Rodina was created in September 2003 as an electoral bloc combining three “social-patriotic” parties: the Party of Russian Regions (with Rogozin at the helm), the People’s Will Party, and the United Socialist Party of Russia. Its creation – just three months before the December Duma elections – was universally viewed as the Kremlin’s attempt to weaken the Communist Party (KPRF). Rogozin boasted to his supporters that Putin considered Rodina his “personal project.”
All initial indications showed that the “project” was a success. The 9% of the votes polled by Rodina in December was suspiciously close to the 12% lost by KPRF as compared to its 1999 results. Rogozin became the leader of the 37-member Duma faction; his Rodina party began acquiring new members and showed strong results in the regional elections. Rogozin’s personal popularity took off, too, with the state media providing him with favorable coverage. Rumors started to circulate that the Kremlin wanted Rodina to completely squeeze the Communist out of the left flank and eventually become the main opposition party to United Russia.
Typical for a Russian politician, Rogozin’s ideological views were difficult to define. Half-Zhirinovsky/half-Zyuganov, he successfully alternated national-patriotic banners of the former with the social justice rhetoric of the latter. Where Rogozin did stand out was his virulent criticism of the oligarchs whose “shackles” he wanted the country to get rid of. (Which didn’t prevent Rogozin from accepting campaign contributions from the banker Alexander Lebedev.) In addition, for some time, Rogozin had managed to mix his personal loyalty to Putin with opposition to Putin’s government, which, in Rogozin’s view, was full of “oligarch’s agents.” Rogozin publicly called on Putin to launch a fight against the oligarchs and promised that in this fight, Putin can use Rodina as his personal “spetsnaz.”
The two sides of Rogozin – loyalty to Putin and opposition to the government – finally collided in January 2005, when the Duma began debating the implementation of the law on monetization of benefits, which just took effect and caused widespread public protests. Rogozin accused the economic bloc of the Cabinet – Zurabov along with the Minister of Finance Alexei Kudrin and Economic Minister German Gref – in betraying Putin. Rogozin insisted that sacking the government – or, at the very least, Zurabov — was the only way to save Putin’s reputation.
Soon, it became clear that the Duma, dominated by United Russia, was unwilling to make any move against the Cabinet. Having realized that his goals can’t be achieved by parliamentary means, Rogozin apparently concluded that something more dramatic should be tried.
Later, Rogozin described the hunger strike as a “well-thought action.” In reality, he had miscalculated just about everything. Instead of becoming a center of attention, Rogozin found himself in a state of virtual informational blockade. The Duma leadership ignored him. Worst of all, the struggle of Putin’s “spetsnaz” attracted absolutely no interest – much less support – of Putin himself. All of sudden, Rogozin was trapped.
A decent way out came in the form of resolution by the Rodina Duma faction “directing” Rogozin to end the strike. Rogozin promptly obliged and proclaimed the strike a success. However, reflecting his changing attitude towards Putin, he announced that Rodina was moving into opposition not only to the Cabinet, but to the executive branch “as a whole.”
A “new” Rodina obviously needed new friends, and their choice was somewhat surprising. The first was KPRF, the very party Rodina was supposed to fight with. The Communists supported Rogozin during the strike, and grateful Rogozin began talking about a broad left-patriotic, Rodina-KPRF, coalition for the 2007 Duma elections. Another friend in the fight against the oligarchs came in the shape of the jailed Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who, in his widely publicized article, “The Left Turn,” predicted Rodina’s imminent ascension to power. Many observers interpreted this passage as Khodorkovsky’s overture to Rogozin. Returning the favor, Rogozin’s lieutenant Andrei Savelyev suggested that Khodorkovsky should run for president.
In the meantime, clouds began gathering over Rogozin and his party. In July 2005, the Duma allowed the registration of the second Rodina faction composed of members of Sergey Baburin’s People’s Will Party; this shrank Rogozin’s faction by a third. Adding insult to injury, Rogozin was stripped of his position as Duma vice-speaker (the post went to Baburin). Rogozin naturally accused the presidential administration in masterminding the split, and he obviously had a point: having used Rodina to harass the Communists in 2003, the Kremlin was now using Baburin’s party to pressure Rodina, which the Kremlin increasingly considered as being “out of control.”
Rogozin had certainly realized that he was fighting for his political life. Reflecting new realities, his Rodina completely abandoned its anti-oligarch rhetoric and adopted instead extremely nationalistic platform that many in Russia called xenophobic or even fascist. Having made illegal immigration a centerpiece of its election campaign for the Moscow City Duma in the fall of 2005, Rodina released of a TV ad “Let’s clean the city of garbage!” This sealed its fate: following a barrage of criticism that the ad incited ethnic hatred, Rodina was banned from the elections.
In March 2006, Rogozin stepped down as the party leader, and when on October 28, 2006, Rodina merged with two other parties (the Russian Party of Life and the Russian Pensioners’ Party) to create a new political entity, Just Russia, Rogozin terminated his party membership.
Rogozin’s post-Rodina life initially followed the pattern characteristic for any disgraced politician: he was sent abroad. In January of 2008, he was appointed a Russian ambassador to NATO in Brussels, and for the next three and half years, little has been heard from or about him. Rogozin surfaced in summer of 2011 as Russia’s chief spokesperson on the hot topic of European missile defense. In July 2011, he traveled to the United States and met with the officials at the White House, State Department and Congress. At the conclusion of one of the meetings, Rogozin — demonstrating his newly acquired diplomatic skills — called two Republican senators “monsters of the Cold War.”
In the fall of 2011, it became clear that Rogozin was returning to Russian politics. He resumed his activity as the leader of the Congress of Russian Communities, a “national-patriotic” organization he established in 1992. The Congress threw its support behind the All-Russia People’s Front created to promote Putin’s presidential run. “My choice is Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin,” Rogozin told to a meeting of supporters. (“Vladimir Vladimirovich, your personal spetsnaz is waiting for your orders.”)
In December, Rogozin was unexpectedly appointed deputy prime minister in charge of military industrial complex, a move that is said to have been personally lobbied by Putin. Some publications now predict that in the new Putin’s cabinet, headed by Medvedev, Rogozin will also become Minister of Defense.
Regardless of his near future, Rogozin is definitely a man to watch long-term.