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Analysis & Opinion
13.05.11 Why Is Putin Destroying Just Russia And Forming A People’s Front For United Russia?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Elena Miskova

On May 18 United Russia deputies in St. Petersburg City Duma will strip Federation Council Speaker and Leader of the Just Russia Party Sergei Mironov of his mandate and his top government job. This will all but ensure that Just Russia will not cross the seven percent threshold in the 2011 Parliamentary election. What does this say for the future of Russia’s political system and the line-up of national parties? Is Putin building an East German model of one dominant party, a Popular Front in its support and a couple of small and politically irrelevant parties in a rubber stamp parliament?

Mironov had fallen out with the Kremlin with his increasingly oppositionist posturing. He was forced to give up his formal chairmanship in Just Russia three weeks ago. He then said that Just Russia would not support Putin for president were he nominated by United Russia, a huge faux-pas.

Just Russia has been creating serious electoral problems for United Russia during the regional elections by cannibalizing United Russia’s political base and boosting popular discontent with its populist rhetoric. Although channeling this discontent into political support for a leftist party controlled by the Kremlin was the original intent of Just Russia’s creators, this plan went awry as the principal benefactors of Just Russia’s “controlled oppositionism” turned out to be the communists, whose electoral ratings have gone up while Just Russia’s stagnated. Instead of squeezing out the communists from the political scene, Just Russia has begun to help the communists squeeze out United Russia and threaten its dominance.

Now the demise of Just Russia appears to be part of a larger plan to recreate a constitutional super-majority of 300-plus members for United Russia, which is feasible in this year’s election if just three parties make it to the Duma (United Russia, Communist Party of the Russian Federation and Liberal Democratic Party of Russia). This super-majority is Putin’s lock on Russia’s political system, allowing him to control the key positions in government irrespective of who sits in the Kremlin or serves as prime minister.

On Friday Putin made another move to create this super-majority for his party by calling for an All-Russia Popular Front to encompass all sorts of public organizations, and promising to put their activists on United Russia’s ticket in the federal and regional elections.

Although the idea is a throwback to a similar political set up in some former members of the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe, most notably in East Germany where Putin worked as a KGB agent in the late 1980s, it does hold the promise of broadening United Russia’s support base as well as bringing in fresh, active faces to the party. The following day Putin personally met with a number of civil leaders, including the popular leader of the car owners’ union Vyacheslav Lyisakov. “United Russia needs new ideas and new faces,” Putin said at the meeting.

Killing Just Russia will also deny President Dmitry Medvedev a political vehicle for a totally independent presidential run. Plans to create such a vehicle out of the decomposing Right Cause party, by imbedding First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov in it, foundered when Shuvalov wisely demurred after learning that the latest Levada poll put the Right Cause barely above one percent.

Without a major national party behind him, Medvedev is a political loner who has failed to secure a strong political following despite four years in Russia’s top job. He will continue to be dependent on United Russia for political support even if he were to serve a second presidential term.

What does this say for the future of Russia’s political system and the line-up of national parties? Is Putin building an East German model of one dominant party, a Popular Front in its support and a couple of small and politically irrelevant parties in a rubber stamp parliament? Is Just Russia’s demise preordained with Mironov’s ouster, or has it become entrenched enough to stay put, at least on the regional level, even if it were to lose its seats in the Duma next December? Are plans for a rightist liberal party completely dead? It appears that nothing on the right flank could be resuscitated in time for the December Duma elections, but could it be possible after that?
Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, Inc., San Francisco, CA:

It indeed appears that Just Russia was unable to differentiate its political product (program) sufficiently from that of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. One can wonder if a distinct social-democratic (EU style) program is politically viable in Russia, given its legacy of 70 years of communist indoctrination. Moderate social-democratic parties in Western Europe succeed mainly because these societies were never subjected to decades of total ideological promotion of radical social-democracy.

One can wonder if different personalities or a more radical agenda by Just Russia would have been more successful. The political consequences of a century (including the pre-1917 period) of Marxist propaganda in Russia are not really discussed publicly there with the depth that the topic merits. There are objective reasons for this partial taboo; this aspect is a political reality that defines the political arena of Russia today.

Moreover, much of Just Russia’s agenda was perforce implemented by United Russia – which, as the party responsible for governance has to address many of the glaring social problems of today’s Russia – not only as a matter of its own political survival, but as problems that cannot wait for the next electoral cycle and must be addressed immediately.

The trend toward one dominant party with a constellation of smaller constituencies is not peculiar to the German Democratic Republic. This has been observed in many democracies, including the United States, where even the political genetics of the current Republican-Democratic party pair are rooted in a single party, which divided into two fragments, which still retain so much in common that bi-partisanship, as it is known in the United States, is a bond much stronger than classical political coalitions. In America there is a partially tongue-in-cheek commentary about a single “Republicratic” party, which captures roughly 90 percent of the vote in national elections. We are of course talking about mainstream Republicans and Democrats, not the radical fringes of both parties.

So the emergence of political clustering in Russia is not a surprising or rare event. Political pluralism must remain, and will continue to exist in Russia – especially considering that the Russian Communist Party is a very significant and genuine opposition to the current Russian government (and possibly even political order). The Liberal Democratic Party of Russia has a stable constituency. Notably, Russian pro-Western liberals continue to be undermined by certain very erroneous Western policy initiatives – there are pockets of Cold War attitudes in the West which do not seem to care very much for their unrequited admirers in Russia and generate electoral backlash by much publicized initiatives, like the recent announcement to deploy ABM theater weapons in Romania.

The initiative to create an “All-Russian” political front is a rational response to the evolving political landscape in Russia. This front has been publically announced to be “above partisanship” and even promises representation in legislatures for voters not affiliated with any party. The promise, made publically, will therefore be subject to public examination.

Finally, one must remember that, with the exception of the communists, political parties exist to serve the interests of the electorate. Communist parties were established to serve the interests of social revolution. Therefore, in Russia today, as in many other countries, the electorate will aggregate with those political parties that truly satisfy the voters’ interests. An incumbent party is in a much better position to deliver to the electorate – this enables political longevity. In post-war Japan – always correctly identified as a democracy – the liberal democrats ruled for 50 years, until they were voted out of power. Japan is far from a unique case.
Elena Miskova, Managing Partner, LEFF GROUP Government and Public Relations, Moscow:

Moscow experts have long argued that Medvedev needs to form his own political base within a national political party. It has been more often argued that the liberal Right Cause party should be the best fit for Medvedev as an electoral platform, with the potential to help set up a two-party system.

Just Russia has been discounted as a platform for Medvedev for being too leftist and too anti-Western to be an ideologically comfortable fit for a liberal and pro-Western president. This argument, however, is wrong.

In real life politics we already have a genuine right-wing national party – United Russia. It is an almost classic conservative party touting conservatism as its official ideology, albeit with some strong populist element. And it already has a national leader.

A social-democratic Just Russia with a realistic support level of ten to 15 percent could be a much better political vehicle and an electoral platform for Medvedev’s presidential bid than a virtual liberal party with a non-existent support base that fails to attract anyone from Russia’s top-rated political or government figures as its leader. Moreover, Medvedev has been putting forward an increasingly left-of-center populist message that fits Just Russia nicely. And with Medvedev at the top instead of a hapless Mironov or Levichev, Just Russia could do quite well in the Duma elections.

Mironov’s imminent ouster is a step toward destroying Medvedev’s political capability for an independent run from his own political platform. Medvedev’s run as a candidate from a national party would have meant greater political independence during his second term.

A presidential nomination by Just Russia would be good for Medvedev. He would emerge as a political pole for consolidating at least a part of Russia’s elite. Even if he were to lose the presidential election he would have a political base to return to in order to remain active in politics and become a leader of systemic opposition. And he would be forced to collect the two million signatures necessary for running as an independent candidate.

Without a national party behind him, Medvedev would be like a Don Quixote fighting the windmills of corruption and protecting Lady Modernization all alone.

Putin would still have a choice of options – either to run himself and most likely win in an honest, free and democratic election, or to step aside and put Medvedev forward for a second term while imposing on him a loyal prime minister – Igor Sechin, Igor Shuvalov or Aleksei Kudrin.

Putin’s Popular Front is another strategic move to deny Medvedev an independent base while allowing him to run for a second term without much of a political or social base and without much growth in his presidential powers. Putin then becomes a sort of a regent for the acting president, a leader of a broad political force that keeps a regular check on the president’s and the nation’s vital signs. It could be an arrangement many would admire, both at home and abroad.
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