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Analysis & Opinion
19.03.10 Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: Medvedev’s Own Political Party?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Stephen Blank, Ethan Burger

Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev is said to have given his blessing to forming a new political party that would specifically promote his modernization agenda and seek to mobilize public support for Medvedev’s reformist policies in the run-up to the Parliamentary elections of 2011 and the presidential elections of 2012. How should Medvedev go about setting up his own party? What kind of a party does he need to build? What should its political platform be? In general, what kind of a political party could Medvedev call home, and how could he bring it to life?

According to an article in Moscow’s Trud daily last week, creation of a new right-wing liberal party, masterminded by the First Deputy Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov and Rusnano Chief Anatoly Chubais, is in the works.

A "working group" is courting regional public figures, including members of United Russia, Just Russia and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia to join a new, business-oriented "political organization" that will take part in the national Parliamentary elections in 2011, Trud reported. "It is a party of law and order," Trud quoted one of the group's organizers as saying. "It will gather people who can help business and innovation through legislative efforts." The group is planning to determine the leadership in the party's regional offices by this summer.

The work to create the new pro-Medvedev party has been "sanctioned by the Kremlin administration," and experts say that Surkov and Chubais would likely be the two masterminds behind the operation. The new party could be formed on the basis of the existing liberal party Pravoye Delo (The Right Cause), which was itself formed by the Kremlin from three smaller parties and is heavily influenced by Chubais. The party has lost its momentum, has been plagued by internal conflicts and is doing poorly in regional elections.

Another political donor for a new pro-Medvedev party could be the right-wing of United Russia itself – the so-called November 4th Club, an informal liberal-conservative discussion group allied with United Russia. The November 4th Club, which takes its name from the People's Unity national holiday, is headed by Vladimir Pligin, a United Russia Duma deputy who is the director of the Institute for Social Projects, and Valery Fadeyev, the editor in chief of the Expert magazine.

Unlike Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is the official leader, though not a member, of United Russia, president Medvedev has no political party he can call home. Although he has appeared at United Russia’s congresses and regularly meets with its leaders, he has generally kept his distance from that party, telling its members at one time that United Russia is in need of reform to keep up with new challenges. He has also kept his distance from another pro-Kremlin Party – Just Russia, led by Federation Council Speaker Sergey Mironov.

It is clear that Medvedev needs a political instrument to marshal public support for his policies and modernization efforts. He needs to shed the image of a political loner, a mere sidekick of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Were Medvedev’s party to garner tangible public support and do well in the regional and Duma elections of 2011, it would put him in a strong position to seek reelection for his second and now lengthened six-year presidential term. This would go a long way toward establishing Medvedev’s political independence and expanding his freedom to set Russia’s future trajectory.

But what kind of a party does he need to build? What should its political platform be? What should its ideological orientation be – liberal, conservative, social-democratic, libertarian? How should Medvedev go about setting up his own party? Should he rely on old political hacks Vladislav Surkov and Anatoly Chubais to deliver him a pet-party, or would he do better by engaging himself in grass-roots activities and public campaigning in support of his modernization platform? In general, what kind of a political party could Medvedev call home, and how could he bring it to life? Or should he?

Ethan Burger, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, DC:

LUKoil Executive Anatoly Barkov’s role in the killing of obstetrician Vera Sidelnikova and her daughter-in-law in a “traffic accident” involving his Mercedes S500 demonstrates that the time is ripe for a new party of “Non-Power.” This event has become a metaphor for the arrogance of Russia’s elite, the degree to which it lives with impunity, its low disregard for others, and the complicity/corruption of the authorities. Not surprisingly, writers, actors and the families of the deceased are calling on President Dmitry Medvedev to ensure that that matter is not swept under the rug.

It is far from clear that Pravoe Delo can attract support beyond its narrow political base. The term “liberal” carries negative connotations in Russia, suggesting a narrow group of people lacking a genuine connection to the population. Many of its members are tainted by their ties to Boris Yeltsin-era figures like Anatoly Chubais. If Medvedev indeed wants to build a political base, its potential members could be composed of several groups. I envision five distinct “types” that could coalesce into a working “big tent” coalition.

The first are members of the silent majority: those citizens outraged by inequalities in Russian society and the perks enjoyed by the Moscow-based political elite and politically-connected oligarchs. They are represented by the demonstrators in Vladivostok who took to the streets when higher import duties were imposed on imported cars, or in Kaliningrad, where people have lost their patience with unfilled promises of a better economic future. Members of the silent majority have access to information sources not controlled by the government, but they experience the reality of Russian life on a daily basis and are not optimistic about the future.

The Second are regional elites who oppose the “power vertical” and the concentration of wealth and influence in Moscow. These include political figures, entrepreneurs, local government officials, etc.

The third are ethnic minorities that want to preserve their own culture and feel that they have been deprived of the economic benefits that their regions have given the state and country’s economic elite.

Then there are persons who understand the importance of establishing a state based on the rule of law. Many of these individuals are professionals (e.g. educators, journalists, and lawyers). Some are active in non-governmental organizations. They like what president Medvedev says, but are disappointed that he lacks the will or ability to put his declaratory goals into action.

Lastly, there are citizens who see the Russian Federation as a failure. These people can be divided into two distinct categories: those with separatist tendencies, but realistic in that they do not see their regions/nationality as viable if independent, and those who do not believe that Russia can modernize without changing and fear that the country’s very existence may be in jeopardy.

President Medvedev can develop a progressive program stressing the rule of law and the building of an egalitarian safety net consistent with the attitudes of most citizens. If he can capture the imagination of a large segment of the citizenry, he will find allies coming from all corners of the country – not merely friends whose positions would be enhanced by his forming a political party, but individuals like Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak and one-time Prime Minister and current Chairman of the Accounts Chamber Sergei Stephasin, well-intentioned individuals whose reputations are largely untarnished.

Vladimir Belaeff, President, Global Society Institute, Inc.:

To start let us remember that Medvedev’s modernization program aims for the creation of an economy of innovation and intellectual capital, in order to make Russia economically less dependent on export of energy commodities and other raw materials. It is acknowledged that such modernization requires a renewal of governance processes and more efficient administrative systems. The entire program is expected to require a timeline of 20 years or so.
There is another requirement for Russia’s economic modernization that is generally less recognized – the social dimension. An extractive economy requires relatively less labor and management per unit of GDP; a knowledge-based, innovative economy requires a quality of social components that may be more difficult to achieve, even in 20 years. The social damage caused by 70 years of Soviet ideological engineering, resulting in actual physical harm to social components, is still very notable in the former Soviet Union, and may not be sufficiently overcome for several decades.

Against the backdrop of the above practical and focused objectives, now appear curious examples of political speculation, like the one described by Frolov. There is an underlying assumption that Medvedev has political ambitions which require him to establish a new “party he could call home.” This assumption is not proven by word or deed. Furthermore, it is completely unproven that Russia’s economic modernization is sufficient as a banner for any party – we are not in the 1990s anymore.

As Frolov points out, the new party would have to define itself within the political spectrum of modern Russia. That is not easy – the principal tracks are occupied by already working, mainstream political movements. The share of the electorate that a new party could hope to attract may be commensurate with the results of other similar parties: Yabloko and the Right Cause (Pravoye Delo) – i.e. the new party would be as marginal to Russia’s political process as the two mentioned here. The new party would have to fight for a share of the slim slice of the electorate that is aligned with the “right-wing, liberal, pro-business” ideology of Russia’s variant of neo-conservatism. There is no reason to suppose that experienced and practical politicians in United Russia, Just Russia and the Liberal Democratic Party would be interested in switching to an emerging, marginal party.

A new bespoke political party to support Medvedev’s hypothetical career plans does not make practical sense. Building a new party for the sake of political pluralism (or as a hobby) is expensive and wasteful. The idea seems absurd – as many political speculations are.

What could be the human origin of the concept? One possibility is that some frustrated reformers of the 1990s, who have not really kept up with the times, see Russia’s economic modernization plans as a vehicle to restart their own careers. These individuals failed politically (their economic acumen is not so brilliant, either). To restart, they need a fresh face, a person with a successful track record and world-class recognition. Medvedev fits the need – but why would he want to associate himself with a coterie of obsolescent political has-beens? Such an association would be the kiss of death for a Russian politician.

Another possible source could be a strategy to fragment the existing political configuration in Russia – this would benefit the communists, who would increase their relative influence in the country’s institutions.

Finally, it may simply be one more attempt to repackage Pravoye Delo – Russia’s neo-con party – by some deluded operators who have convinced themselves that the failures of this party are due to appearance and not to substance.

Professor Stephen Blank, the U.S. Army War College, Carlyle Barracks, PA:

In Russia's system it is apparent that Medvedev needs his own power base and this appears to be what he is trying to create. We should not overestimate the chances for democracy, although this could injure elite cohesion and lead to further reforms. For now, however, this initiative, if it takes place, is another Kremlin party, not an independent expression of autonomous social forces. That clearly is too much to stomach.

But reform from the top can only go so far. At some point autonomous social energies must be allowed to act on their own on behalf of their concept of Russia and Russian interests. Otherwise this resembles the atrophied party development of the Nicholas II period, and in some cases those parties had more autonomous social support than the Kremlin’s creations.

Relying on Chubais and Surkov is relying on “gosudarstvenniki” rather than on public actors who need to and can prove themselves in public. This is another of those gambits by which Russian reformers believe they can achieve liberal ends by autocratic means and it has never worked before.

Ultimately democratic politics means just that, not sham surrogates or managed democracy. Both Russian and world history confirm this necessity.
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