Disunited Russia?

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.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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8 Responses to Disunited Russia?

  1. Dear Eugene,

    United Russia’s lack of an ideology is in my opinion both the reason for what was until recently its extraordinary success and is its defining problem. A real party cannot “create” or “adopt” an ideology. Rather a party is a gathering together of people who share (or who claim to share) the same ideology. A party that has no ideology cannot ever be more than a ragbag of individuals who have come together for essentially opportunistic reasons. As such it is always vulnerable to accusations of corruption even when these are factually unmerited.

    There is a very strong conservative sentiment in Russia as in all countries and in the period 1999 to 2012 United Russia came to embody this, which fact explains its success. Even now I would say that it is down but most definitely not out. The trouble is that United Russia has never gone beyond this or explained what being a conservative in today’s Russia means. Does it mean for example an active role for the state in economic affairs, which could be considered a sort of a Gaullist or Christian Democrat “left wing” conservatism, or does it mean allowing free rein to private business in the manner of conservatives in the US and Britain? Does it mean taking a socially conservative view on social questions or being a libertarian? I get a clear sense from Putin what his ideas are and what his ideology is but I simply do not get this from United Russia. In the absence of this I can’t help feeling that if tomorrow Putin suddenly announced his conversion to pure unadulterated Ayn Rand style liberalism the majority of United Russia would support him. Possibly I am being unfair but I do not think it is difficult to think the way I do. Consider for example how many stalwarts of United Russia were formerly veterans of the CPSU and then of Yegor Gaidar’s vehicle Russia’s Choice.

    This lack of a defining ideology means that United Russia is vulnerable to attack from every direction, left as well as right, and has no solidly loyal constituency to draw on and to take it through hard times as do conservative parties elsewhere and as does for example the KPRF.

    The one point I would say is that United Russia is hardly alone in facing this problem. The whole story of Russian politics since 1991 (and indeed 1989) is of an endless parade of ephemeral parties and groups, both supporting the government and opposing it, which come and go at bewildering speed briefly taking positions on the left and the right but never in the end amounting to very much. Only three parties have shown any stability: the KPRF, Yabloko and the LDPR. The LDPR as you said a few weeks ago seems to revolve largely around its leader Zhirinovsky and one has to question its continued viability once he is gone. As you know I have always been concerned that Yabloko has never been given the political space within Russia’s liberal electorate to grow and the mass of new liberal parties and movements that are in the course of being created following the new registration law seem to threaten its future even more. That leaves only the KPRF as the one Russian party with a stable electorate, a coherent ideology and a strong organisation. Unfortunately it is also in its present form completely regressive and unelectable. Against this dismal picture United Russia’s decade at the top could be called a success.

    • AK says:

      I consider the Gaullist comparison the most viable. In three words: conservative, patriotic, statist.

      De Gaulle’s (and later Gaullist) support base was basically a confusing succession of various “Rallies”, “Fronts” and “Unions” incorporating both leftist and rightist movements. In the early days, the Communists in France too were very influential, not marginal like they are now.

      With time, the Gaullist party evolved into the UMP, and turned right; while the Socialists became a very powerful force.

      I suspect much the same will happen in Russia over the next few decades. The Communists will be marginalized; United Russia will move right (towards the positions of the liberal-conservative/liberal clubs); and Fair Russia will drop its more overtly socialist language (as did the French Socialists’ predecessors) in favor of more moderate leftism and become a truly serious force.

      • Eugene says:

        I’m reluctant to predict for the “next few decades,” but for the next 10 years, my prediction would be this: the Communists will be losing support, but still viable. I’m not sure that UR and JR will exist in their current forms, if at all.

    • Eugene says:

      Dear Alexander,

      The major problem with UR is that it’s based on the wrong electoral model. It was formed — and it was successful — when the Russian society was quite monogenous and its electorate was “centrist” almost by definition. However, over the past few years, the process of polarization has been taking place, with the electorate splitting to left-of center majority and right-of-center minority. The former increasingly vote for the Communists, JR and LDPR; the latter still have no party of their own. But UR is still “in between” — losing the left and unable to appeal to the right. I’m not sure is a “re-branding” can fix the situation.

      Putin has missed this shift, too, but he had an easy option: to dump UR. I don’t think he cares about any particular “ideology” except for having a servile Duma. For this, he’ll be using the still powerful administrative resourse. I think he’ll try to put Medvedev at the helm of UR but will be positioning himself as a “supra-party” president.


  2. Alex says:

    Hi, Eugene
    IMHO, UR does have an “ideology”, but it is of the sort whiich would offend most of the population if it is voiced out. That folklore nickname of theirs reflects the public perceptions of what the UR’s “ideology” is – the moral code of the builder of capitalism 🙂 Alternatively, one may say that UR has never been a party, but rather a trade union and so their “ideology” is simple – to benefit the members in any possible way – at the expense of all the rest, of course.

    BTW – I liked your absent puppet master hint 🙂


    • Eugene says:

      Hi Alex,

      Yes, I agree with you. That’s why any talks about “re-branding” UR sound so ridiculous to me. They had their chance to become a bona fide political party back in 2005 — and they blew it. I feel that now, UR is beyond the point of repair.


  3. Pingback: A spectre of liberalism |

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