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Analysis & Opinion
03.09.07 Election Speculations
By Alexei Makarkin

What Role will Just Russia Play?

Although the outcome of the upcoming elections to the State Duma is unlikely to change which party controls the Russian parliament, the introduction of the new Kremlin-friendly party Just Russia has brought some new intrigue to the scene. As we head into the election season, it is clear that the “the party of power” – United Russia still dominates. It is also clear that the federal authorities, as well as most regional elites, will make supporting this party their first priority. But the center-left Just Russia must be taken seriously. This party is likely to influence the elections, although it will certainly not be able to compete with United Russia for the majority of the votes. It is obvious that United Russia, whose membership includes 69 Russian regional leaders (80 percent of all governors), is beyond competition and will come in first; the question is how close the other parties will get.

There are two possible scenarios. According to one, only three parties will succeed in passing the 7 percent threshold required to claim seats in the Duma: United Russia, Just Russia, and the Communist Party. Just Russia will attract 10-12 percent of the votes, mostly at the expense of Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), which will lose its place in the parliament altogether. This course of events would allow United Russia to secure a constitutional majority in the Duma, which would give the party the power to modify the constitution as it sees fit.

According to the second scenario, LDPR will maintain its representation in the Duma, which would still give United Russia the absolute majority in the parliament it currently enjoys, but will not give the party the power to remake the constitution.

Speculations around the elections are largely fueled by the uncertainty surrounding Just Russia. This will be the party's first time participating in the elections for the State Duma and how many seats it might win is a subject of much discussion.

Despite United Russia's special status, it is not a 21st century equivalent of the Soviet Communist Party, an assumption promulgated by many Western journalists. The Communist Party comprised all Soviet administrative elites, but not all representatives of the current Russian political elite are members of United Russia. When United Russia was founded, many regional elites were invited to join the party, including people who were already at odds with one another. As a result, conflicts would often break out within the party, between governors and mayors, or governors and representatives of local business communities, mainly over who would appear on party lists and in what position.

Under certain conditions, the disenfranchised regional counter-elites who had either not been invited to join United Russia or appeared at the very bottom of the party lists, which thwarted their political ambitions, could attempt to achieve their objectives by lending support to the leaders of liberal parties such as former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov or nationalist parties such as Rodina. Last year, however, the authorities came up with a new plan to channel this support; they founded Just Russia, a second party that would be, by and large, loyal to the Kremlin. While the powers that be were unwilling to promise the counter-elites any important positions in the presidential administration, Just Russia gives them access to the regional legislative assemblies as well as the Federal Assembly, which would allow these leaders some role in the decision-making process.

Some conclusions can already be drawn about Just Russia's effectiveness as a way to channel the actions of regional counter-elites. Thus far, the Just Russia members who have achieved the greatest success are municipal – not regional – leaders. Samara Mayor Viktor Tarkhov is an especially noteworthy example. His election can mostly be attributed to the support of Sergei Mironov, the head of the Party of Life, who later became head of Just Russia. Tarkhov, a typical representative of the local counter-elite, was always a determined opponent of Samara’s regional authorities. Stavropol Mayor Dmitry Kuzmin, is another Just Russia member who fits this mold. He was also the only Just Russia mayor who helped secure his party a victory in March's regional elections. In Stavropol, Just Russia defeated the local United Russia branch, although it had the support of regional governor Alexander Chernogorov.

The role of mayors in these developments is especially interesting. Russian mayors face a difficult dilemma: the tax revenue they receive from the center is paltry, but they are still held accountable for local problems. As a result, every mayor in Russia is, above all, a pragmatist focused primarily on political survival. If a city receives support from the regional governor, the mayor is likely to be a supporter of the governor's party, usually United Russia. On the other hand, if the governor is more favorably disposed toward other regional cities or has personal problems with the mayor, the mayor is likely to join the ranks of Just Russia.

Conflicts between Russia’s mayors and governors were a frequent occurrence in the 1990s, and it was not difficult to predict similar developments in the future. Perhaps in order to stifle unwanted competition, United Russia tried to pass a law abolishing municipal elections and allowing the federal authorities to appoint mayors. However, Russia’s membership in the Council of Europe saved the mayors from losing their jobs: according to the European charter on local self-government, mayors must be elected. Now there is only one way to get rid of a bothersome competitor during elections: arresting him on the basis of some criminal offense, even a bogus one. As a result, mayors are frequently turning up in jail.

Yet this tactic may also backfire. The people, infuriated by the “elimination” of a popular mayor, may choose not to vote for United Russia during the Duma elections, lending their support instead to The Just Russia and the Communist Party.

Even so, United Russia will face serious problems only if a major crisis that would affect the whole system of power occurs. A crisis of such magnitude shook the country at the end of the 1990s, when plummeting oil prices hit the economy especially hard, sending the erstwhile party of power, Our Home is Russia, to the dustbin of history. It is unlikely, however, that a storm of comparable intensity will sweep over the Russian political landscape in the near future.
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