In late March, Vladimir Putin participated in a conference held by the All-Russia People’s Front (ARPF). The ARPF’s first congress, which is supposed to take place in the near future, will finally give the “movement,” which now exists only in newspapers and on TV, a legal form. Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya discusses whether the ARPF is a prototype of a new ruling party or a parody of a political movement.
On May 6, 2011, during an interregional conference held by United Russia, Vladimir Putin announced the formation of the All-Russian People’s Front (ARPF). The then–prime minister suggested forming a coalition of diverse political parties, trade unions, and youth organizations. This initiative was reminiscent of the For Putin movement, which was created one month before the 2007 parliamentary elections. Its objective was to conduct Putin’s election campaign without connecting his name too closely to the United Russia (UR) brand. The Russian leader has always needed an intermediary between himself and the electorate to minimize the threat to his image from the ruling party.
By May 2011, the situation was different. One should remember that at the time, it was not yet known whether President Dmitri Medvedev would run for a second term. A portion of the elite (that later proved to be naïve) still supported the “liberal” president, and Medvedev himself occasionally gave his supporters reason to hope that the “political thaw” would continue. The creation of the ARPF spoiled his game. Putin made it clear that he intended to broaden his political resources, mobilize loyal forces, and probably announce his return to the Kremlin, an event that indeed happened four months after the ARPF had been founded.
So what does this “front” represent? Why was it created? What are its future prospects? Let us try to define three key scenarios according to which the ARPF will continue to develop. These scenarios can be analyzed from a legal point of view, from the position of relations between the ARPF and the ruling party, and from the perspective of the Putin regime’s trend of development.
20,000 employees of the Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works joined the “front.” All of these individuals could hardly have heard about this organization.
In the first scenario, the ARPF is a pro-Putin propaganda organization without a leader or a clear structure. In this case, Vladimir Putin, his poll standings, and his active supporters (e.g., his authorized representatives) are the “front’s” only resources. This scenario is, in fact, in the process of being realized. From the legal point of view, the ARPF does not exist; its organization is based in Putin’s reception offices and is supervised from the Kremlin. It is noteworthy that Aleksey Anisimov, who was Putin’s deputy campaign manager during the 2012 presidential election and supervised the ARPF’s technical work, became the head of the presidential administration’s regional policy department after Putin’s return to the Kremlin. First Deputy Kremlin Chief-of-Staff Vyacheslav Volodin was previously the ARPF’s ideologist. In other words, the ARPF is a Kremlin project that is directly controlled by Kremlin officials.
Membership in this organization is a fiction: to become a “member” of the ARPF, one only has to announce that membership to a private individual, a company, or a public organization. For instance, in the summer of 2011, the Union of Architects of Russia was “enrolled” in the ARPF without its knowledge. Architect Yevgeny Asse told the media that he had not been notified of his “enrollment” and announced the collection of signatures on the union’s website to oppose membership in the ARPF. As a result, the plenary session of the Russian Union of Architects voted to overturn its entry into the ARPF. At the same time, top managers of a number of industrial enterprises enrolled their employees in the ARPF in large groups. For example, 20,000 employees of one of Russia’s largest steel companies, Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works, joined the “front.” All of these individuals could hardly have heard about this organization.
Thus, this scenario consists in the creation of a mass pro-Putin coalition that would include seemingly everyone and would speak “for everything that is good and against everything that is bad.” The idea is clear: in 2011, Putin wanted to find his own way to triumphantly return to the office of the president. The United Russia brand had become rather shabby, and Putin needed something bigger in order to declare himself a “national hero” who was backed by the whole country. It is no coincidence that Putin supposed at the time that political parties would join the coalition as well. However, the major political parties had been purged, and the only ones on which Putin could count were A Just Russia, which was more dead than alive, and the comical Liberal Democratic Party of Russia.
Now that almost two years have passed since the creation of the ARPF, one can sum up this scenario to a certain extent. The creation of the “front” did not turn out well. Those who had not succeeded in the ruling party joined the organization, which increased tensions in the ARPF–UR relationship, which had not been good to begin with. The ruling party was annoyed by the fact that the Kremlin tried to force “strangers” from the ARPF onto UR’s party lists during the 2011 election. Besides, the idea of ARPF “primaries” produced few results: many well-known UR members—such as Frantz Klintsevich, Vladimir Pligin, Andrei Isaev, and Vladimir Resin—are presented on the ARPF’s website as candidates for the State Duma from the “front,” when in reality they are party officials. However, there have been exceptions: Alexander Babakov, an ex-sponsor of A Just Russia Party, who had left its ranks because of the party’s opposition policy (in the fall of 2011, Sergei Mironov even ventured to criticize Putin), ran for the Duma as an ARPF member on the UR list.
Today, the ARPF’s only face is that of Vladimir Lysakov, who manages the “front’s” apparatus (although nobody has ever seen this “apparatus”; or, rather, its real apparatus is the corresponding department of the presidential administration). The ARPF also has a coordination council, which includes representatives from different social spheres: from the business world, the head of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, Alexander Shokhin; from the medical field, Leonid Roshal; from trade unions, Mikhail Shmakov; and so on. This is a kind of Putin’s Public Chamber, whose objective consists in portraying business, the authorities, and society uniting around the incumbent president.
As a result, Putin has been faced with a dilemma. The ARPF’s growing staff and resources will make the ruling party nervous. Leaving everything as it is will mean keeping the ARPF in its current amorphous state, as a TV picture. The current scenario’s drawback consists in the fact that it is not clear whether the ARPF really exists or not, which affects the electorate’s attitude toward the project. According to an opinion poll conducted by the Levada Center, 38 percent of respondents approve of the “front”, 32 percent disapprove of it, and 30 percent have no firm opinion. More than half of respondents (53 percent) think that the ARPF was created in the interests of United Russia, and only 17 percent believe that it was founded for the welfare of the people. Sixty percent of respondents say that they would be opposed to their employer suggesting that they join the ARPF. Most importantly, 57 percent of respondents have never heard of the ARPF. This does not look like Putin is supported nationwide at all.
The emergence of a new political party from the ARPF would be an alternative scenario, one that was discussed in the corridors of power last fall. Sources in the presidential administration at the time did not rule out the possibility that the ARPF would be registered as a party, which would make it possible for the “front” to take part in elections at all levels. The Kremlin was then considering the idea of allowing electoral blocs: under this scenario, the ARPF would become one of the participants in the pro-Putin coalition, along with UR.
However, this option has been met in the Kremlin with more anxiety than optimism. First of all, even a hint of the chance of using the ARPF as a foundation for a new party is likely to provoke a fast and irreversible erosion of United Russia, which still ensures the government’s majority in Parliament. Can the Kremlin really afford to take such a risk and dismantle its own “vertical”? Secondly, a party should have a rather strict structure, which demands a platform, leaders, staff, and so on. Who would become the ARPF’s leaders? Should the best of United Russia’s members be entrusted with these roles? But what example would this set for the rest of UR’s loyal members, who would need to be shown the door in order to make it possible for the regime to realize its new political demands? Creating a new party is too risky for the Kremlin, because this could quickly destroy all the regime’s resources. And new instruments will not necessarily prove more effective in controlling the political situation. Besides, in such circumstances, the ARPF could easily become a second United Russia and consequently would pose the same threats to the regime’s image.
Finally, the last scenario is an intermediate one. The next election to the lower house of Parliament will be held in almost four years—if, of course, it is held on schedule. The Kremlin still has time to figure out the ARPF’s future. Meanwhile, the “front” will be registered as a public movement. The founding congress is scheduled for June (it is noteworthy that during the last year this congress has been constantly postponed—another sign of the uncertainty of plans in regard to the ARPF).
The intermediate scenario means that the ARPF would still acquire a legal status, which would undoubtedly increase the ambitions of its leaders and officials. The “front” would in this case remain UR’s partner. This scenario would suit United Russia, but only until the next elections. As has already been noted, the party leadership is drastically opposed to the ARPF’s attempt to push its people onto the UR party lists. The ARPF is not enthusiastic about this move either: the electoral campaign is being conducted under the “front’s” brand, but it is United Russia that gains seats in the State Duma. This is not fair, and it means that tensions between the ARPF and UR are not likely to disappear.
The ARPF may become a reserve that can be quickly developed to replace United Russia in the case of political destabilization.
Furthermore, the “front” should not count on having a fully-fledged political program. The Institute of Social, Economic and Political Studies (ISEPS), created in 2011 by the Kremlin, was supposed to prepare an electoral manifesto for both the ARPF and UR. Nothing came of this effort, though; ultimately, it was solely the presidential administration that developed the main points of the campaign. Vladimir Putin ran for president on a platform articulated in a set of articles published in different newspapers. The ARPF, ISEPS, and UR were not directly linked to his campaign.
A question arises: To what ends will the ARPF exist now, when the Kremlin is ready to use it as a foundation for a public movement? The “front” may become a reserve that can be quickly developed to replace UR in the case of political destabilization. Secondly, the ARPF will certainly keep its propaganda function: Putin will use the “front” to introduce popular initiatives, distance himself from “fat cat” bankers, expose corrupt officials, and appeal to “simple folk.” During the ARPF’s March conference on the subject of Putin’s campaign article on social justice the president laid out an agenda for restricting so-called “golden parachutes” for top managers, restoring the Soviet-era Hero of Labor title, supporting the development of a unified Russian history textbook, and returning to the use of school uniforms.
The ARPF is likely to become Putin’s virtual pedestal that he can use to scold Medvedev’s cabinet, which is about to implement unpopular social reforms; to distance himself from a ruling party mired in scandals (in this case, Medvedev’s leadership in UR comes in handy); and to create an illusory connection to the people and “civil society,” which will be represented according to the regime’s wishes. United Russia can only hope that the day does not come when the ARPF will become a real threat to its political monopoly.