The future of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party remains one of the major intrigues of Russia’s suddenly active political season. To say that the party goes through difficult times would be an understatement. In the December parliamentary elections, UR suffered a painful setback: it polled only 49% of the popular vote – and even this number is highly questionable – and lost its constitutional majority in the Duma. More and more Russians associate UR with a witty nickname – “the party of crooks and thieves” — invented by a popular blogger Alexey Navalny. As a result, UR candidates participating in local elections now often position themselves as independent; those who chose to run under the party banner suffered sound defeats in the mayoral elections in Tolyatti and Yaroslavl.
Still unresolved is the issue of the relationship between the party and its chairman Vladimir Putin. Despite the fact that it was UR that nominated Putin as a candidate for the March 4 presidential election, Putin never mentioned it in the course of the election campaign. Instead, Putin ran on the platform of the All-Russia People’s Front (ARPF), a motley pool of organizations hastily created last year. The 238-deputy UR Duma faction now includes 80 members of ARPF who seem to have no other loyalty but personally to Putin. Rumors abound that intra-fraction relations between members of UR and ARPF are lukewarm at best; some in UR consider the ARPF deputies the fifth column of sorts.
Recently, Putin suggested that ARPF should be upgraded into a “civil movement” – a clear step in the direction of creating a bona fide political party – and agreed to lead the new movement. At the moment, the ultimate fate of ARPF is unclear and is likely tied to the decision to be taken by the Kremlin with regards to UR. One of the proposed scenarios implies that ARPR will become a “left-of-center” political party with Putin at the helm, whereas UR will be transformed into a “right-of-center” party headed by the outgoing president Dmitry Medvedev. According to another, if UR performs poorly in the regional elections in October, it will be “re-branded” by being swallowed by ARPF.
Some analysts argued that UR could be split into factions, possibly along the lines of “ideological clubs” (social-conservative, liberal-conservative, liberal, and patriotic) existing within the party. The problem with this approach is that according to the electoral law, only members of the party that retains the UR party brand will keep seats in the Duma and regional parliaments, whereas members of the newly-formed “buds” will have to give away their deputy mandates. Given the intense competition between the clubs and individual deputies, such a civilized split is highly unlikely, if possible at all.
That’s what apparently Putin had in mind when insisting last week that the unity of the UR Duma faction “should be preserved.” The truth is that Putin doesn’t need UR – or any other political entity, including ARPF. What he needs is a Duma that would rapidly – and without arguing — approve legislation proposed by the presidential administration and the Cabinet. For as long as UR is capable of keeping the Duma at the easy disposal of the executive, the party will remain Putin’s first choice. However, should UR begin losing elections – resulting in unruly parliaments — a Plan B will come into play.
Some of the questions surrounding the future of the party won’t be answered until the next party congress scheduled for early summer. Facing long and unnerving uncertainty, the party officials began entertaining themselves with inventing the party ideology. (The fact that created in 2001, UR still doesn’t have established ideology doesn’t seem to bother its leaders.) The General Council has recently approved the creation of two large ideological “platforms:” social-conservative and liberal-conservative. These platforms are expected to function as intra-party thinks tanks that would present competing legislative initiatives to the Council.
The “edinorosses” remind me of puppets who want to start playing their parts – despite the fact that the puppet master is yet to arrive in the theater.