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Analysis & Opinion
08.04.11 Are Medvedev And Putin Forming A Two Party System In Russia?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Patrick Armstrong, Vladimir Belaeff

Last month, three Russian think tanks that claim to advise President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the two presumed presidential candidates in 2012, issued separate reports warning that Russia's highly-centralized and uncompetitive political system has become a major obstacle to further economic progress, and that without sweeping political reform, the country faces possible breakdown or even popular revolt on a par with the early 1990s. Should both Putin and Medvedev run in a competitive presidential election in 2012? Should they present two competing visions for the country’s future?

The Institute for Contemporary Development (INSOR), which is chaired by president Medvedev, concluded that the status quo designed by former president Putin "has no future." It advocates a return to full political competition, including the restoration of popular elections for governors, a free and independent media, promoting the growth of civil society, severing Kremlin control over the judiciary, dramatic action against corruption and sweeping measures to foster small business.

One of 21 "expert groups" ordered by Putin in January to draft post-crisis revisions to the Russian government's official "Strategy 2020" has come to similar conclusions.

The group from the Moscow Center of Conservative and Social Policy offers five future scenarios that range from preserving the status quo, to tightening authoritarian screws, to different paces of democratization. The report argues that the "suppression of pluralism" under Putin has harmed Russia's development and the price of sticking with the status quo would be that "the system will degrade even more, and its ability to solve problems will decrease." Cracking down further could stimulate "protest moods (among the population) and bring nationalist politicians or even criminals to power in the regions."

But perhaps the most troubling report came from a well-known government brain trust, The Center for Strategic Research, which developed the famous Gref Program of liberal economic reforms early into Putin’s presidency in 2000.

Citing its own extensive polling results in major Russian metropolitan areas and the country-wide data from Russia’s leading opinion research services, the report concludes that Russia’s ruling tandem and the dominant United Russia Party are rapidly losing their legitimacy among Russia’s voters, and that a continued stifling of political competition could lead to an uncontrolled popular revolt on par with the late 1980s to 1990s.

Even more ominously, the center’s polling shows that the Russian public is basically disgusted with the behind-the-scenes mode for the transfer of presidential power, where Putin and Medvedev decide between themselves who will run for president. Even the 2008 handover of the presidency from Putin to Medvedev did not sit well with the public, which, it turns out, resented the way it was excluded from making the choice on the country’s future.

The report concludes that Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 or Medvedev’s ascent to a second term within the same framework of closed-door decision making, without a competitive presidential election, would meet with resistance from the public either in the form of voter absenteeism or even in a protest vote for an anonymous third candidate, who is already gaining significant support in the polls. The polling data shows that Medvedev is largely unelectable, while Putin’s victory in the presidential race could be very close, denying him a broad popular mandate for the presidency.

The report advocates a total “reset” of the political content and political leaders in Russia, forming a new liberal party to reflect the values and aspirations of the growing urban middle class, holding competitive elections to the Duma without striving for United Russia’s majority at all costs, forming the first coalition government with the opposition parties in the Duma, and even transferring substantial powers from the presidency to the government.

The plans to revive a rightist liberal party have gained new currency recently, with rumors that the Kremlin has approved the enlisting of First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov to lead the fledgling “Right Cause” Party, which has been languishing in the polls and in its current form has no chance of making it to the Duma next December. The plan seems to be to strengthen the party with high level federal and regional government officials of a liberal streak, increase its funding through loyal business sponsors and boost its media exposure to ensure its passage through the seven percent electoral barrier.

The new liberal faction in the Duma would be a strategic ally, albeit not a satellite, of United Russia, and would give Dmitry Medvedev a popular electoral vehicle to run for the presidency.

Alexander Rahr, director of the Berthold Beitz Center for Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Central Asia, has recently suggested that Putin and Medvedev could give rise to a genuine two-party system in Russia as a logical evolution of the ruling tandem. “This tandem has been reflecting two parallel policies for almost three years now, which is good, because it means Russia is becoming accustomed to pluralism,” said Rahr. “It would be ideal if Russia were to get used to seeing two such different alternative approaches at the highest levels of government. If it does, it could then experiment, perhaps trying to position its political heavyweights into two different parties.”

INSOR’s Igor Yurgens argued that “There is a two-party system behind the walls of the Kremlin. One is the stability party, whose current chief is Putin, and the other is the progress party, with Medvedev at its head. Of course we hope this coming election cycle will bring these out into the open, and give people a chance to decide."

Has the tandem squandered its political legitimacy, as polls suggest? If so, is political or economic stagnation more to blame for this? Why do Russian voters specifically reject the option of an uncompetitive presidential race with Putin and Medvedev deciding the candidacy between themselves?

Should both Putin and Medvedev run in a competitive presidential election in 2012? Should they present two competing visions for the country’s future? What could those visions be? Would that help regain the political legitimacy of Putin’s system while giving Russian voters a chance to chose the course for their country? Or would it be too destabilizing with the risk of shattering the unity of the country once again? Or are such fears overblown, and is Russia too advanced and too stable for another doomsday scenario?

Could Putin and Medvedev help form a two-party system in Russia by institutionalizing the already evident political pluralism within the tandem? What parties are the most obvious candidates to form such a two-party system – United Russia, the Right Cause, Just Russia or the Communist Party, or none of the above? What are the chances for success with the planned top-down upgrade of the liberal Right Cause Party? Or is it likely to be a flop in the next Duma elections? Should Medvedev lead the Right Cause? What party would Putin lead? Should it be United Russia or something entirely different?
Patrick Armstrong, Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada:

The problem with suggesting that the duumvirate create a new party to become a “loyal opposition” to the rather tired United Russia is that they have already tried that. Just Russia was created in 2006; at the time I thought that was exactly what was happening and that two candidates from the team would be picked (Medvedev for Just Russia and Sergei Ivanov for United Russia were my guesses then).

If my theory was correct, something happened to spoil the plan: it may have been that Just Russia didn’t do as well as was hoped, or it may have been that the team’s deeply embedded fear of instability made it abandon the idea. But Just Russia has never really taken off.

And there’s a good reason why it hasn’t. United Russia is a “pedestal party” – it is the pedestal upon which the boss stands. No better evidence can be found than its history. When in 1999, it was not clear who the new boss would be, two “pedestal parties” appeared (Unity and Fatherland-All Russia.) A year later they smoothly amalgamated to support Putin. If you wish to be close to power and enjoy the fruits of that closeness, why would you join the lesser “pedestal party?” And so Just Russia did not become a contender.

The second difficulty is that the establishment cannot create an opposition party by fiat; it must arise from some other source. And so we return to the problem of Russian politics. There are only three strong political entities: the pedestal party, the Communists and Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s personal vehicle. The last two are steadily slipping: they totaled (there is a degree of vote-sharing) 35 percent of the popular vote in 1993, but are now down to 20 percent; their numbers are not likely to grow. The “liberal opposition” (or whatever description you prefer) fails because it will not unite (I suspect that Western reporters talk too much to these bitter people: bitter because they are both disgusted with the status quo and frustrated by their quarrelsome futility.) So, I would conclude that until the “liberals” get their act together, Russia’s stagnant political situation will endure.

But, just because “plan A” didn’t work the first time, doesn’t mean it can’t be tried again. If two credible candidates were to run against each other, one backed by “pedestal party A” and one by “pedestal party B,” perhaps the foundation of a multi-party system could be laid. But there are two caveats. Putin should not be a candidate because he would probably win, presumably on the United Russia ticket, and we’d be back to where we started. The second problem is “kratotropism:” even if candidate B ran a strong second to candidate A, most power-seekers would immediately switch from B’s pedestal to A’s.

Nevertheless “plan A” is a possibility to watch.

Having said that, there are two steps that could open the system up a bit. The seven percent threshold in the Duma is too high and should be lowered or abolished altogether. Returning to direct election of regional heads – but only after the heads-for-life are got rid of, which is happening – would also open up the system and create the possibility of some pluralism in the regions.

But ultimately, for there to be a better choice than the pedestal or two failed, stale and shrinking groupings, the liberals have to unite. And, once united, agree that they are players inside the system, not condescending superior beings looking on from outside and sneering. Two big “ifs.”
Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, Inc., San Francisco, CA:
Currently Russia has four political parties in the Federal Assembly and several political groupings with regional significance. The “lack of free press” is a simplistic adversarial propaganda construct that does not deserve serious discussion: news media, broadcasting and the Internet offer as wide a variety of platforms or political opinion as one could want. Even a radio station financed by a foreign government (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) is available to Russian citizens. Echo of Moscow consistently broadcasts materials that are highly critical of the Kremlin. Foreign publications with similar content are readily available.

Political pluralism (from monarchists to communists) is plentiful in Russia. Claims to the contrary are disingenuous, at the least, and are driven by specific political agendas.

It is remarkable that proposals of political reconfiguration originate only in the neo-liberal camp, frustrated by evident lack of electoral success. Evidently, they are unable to face the reality that their programs do not receive wide support in Russian society – so fancy reasons for electoral failure are invented, for example “electoral fraud” on such a geographic scale that it would be impossible to perpetrate year after year in secrecy. The root issue is that liberalism is an absolutist ideology, which cannot admit rejection by a democratic electorate. Facing electoral failure, any number of external reasons is imagined, except the simplest one: the failure of the ideology itself – liberals, like conservatives, are fundamentally unable to critically examine, challenge and modify their ideology.

It seems that the latest neo-liberal strategy to obtain electoral success is to attempt shaping a political party around one of the two most prominent Russian leaders. Opinion surveys are very flexible tools. The use of public opinion surveys to obtain the desired “voice of the people” – by shaping the questions and selecting respondents – is an old and often used political technology. There is a rather incisive and humorous illustration of how opinion polls are manipulated in a video – a clip from the highly educational British television series “Yes, Prime Minister!” (for those in need of an explanation, “National Service” in the UK is equivalent to the American military draft).

The assumption that Putin and Medvedev will compete for the presidency in 2012 is at this point invented. There is a strong neo-liberal push for such a contest, but that does not by itself define the political environment.

Putin leads United Russia – a party that has an organization, an infrastructure and a large share of the electorate. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) can generate a credible political challenge to United Russia. The CPRF is at this time the most prominent opposition to the party in power. Just Russia is not without its capabilities either.

Where and how do the neo-liberals fit in this spectrum? What can they propose as a credible program of action, considering that anything even remotely hinting at a return to “Yeltsinism” will bring electoral share down to single digits and expose such proponents to ridicule and scorn at a minimum. “Spectacular fight with corruption?” How spectacular? Public hangings on the Red Square? Firing squads in football stadiums, like in China? Freedom for a certain famous, corruptive billionaire? That will garner about 10,000 votes “for,” and millions “against” – crooked billionaires are not the “flavor of the month” anywhere in the world in these economic crisis years.

Another fundamental flaw in neo-liberal thinking is its insularity. The competitors will vigorously examine a neo-liberal agenda – and there are enough holes in it to drive a fleet of lorries through.

Such are the pastimes of the chattering classes in every country of the world.
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