In the past year, Russia’s ruling party has been in constant crisis. Despite its stable poll standings, United Russia’s reputation has been deteriorating, and its members are being subjected to exposés of wrongdoing by the opposition and the media. According to anonymous government sources, the elite is frightened: the Kremlin has started to «betray» its own. Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya discusses the ruling party’s future in the new political environment.
A number of significant events have recently taken place, which can be regarded as signs of an upcoming reform of the United Russia (UR) party. First is the systemic opposition’s closer involvement with the Kremlin.1 One after another, representatives of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), A Just Russia (JR) and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) are invited to meetings with First Deputy Kremlin Chief-of-Staff Vyacheslav Volodin. The CPRF is not a serious political threat to the Kremlin and has traditionally been syphoning off protest votes. A Just Russia has shown that it is also a dependable Kremlin ally. After some hesitation in late 2011-early 2012, it dealt harshly with members who had participated in rallies organized by the non-systemic opposition: on March 13, the party leaders expelled Gennady and Dmitri Gudkov from its ranks. The Gudkovs had refused to comply with a previously received ultimatum: either stop their activity in the Coordinating Council of the Opposition, or quit the party. The same ultimatum was issued to Ilya Ponomarev and Oleg Shein, and they submitted to the party’s wishes: Ponomarev ended his affiliation in the Left Front, and Shein resigned from the Coordinating Council. With the Gudkovs’ expulsion, JR was free of “elements” that are hostile to the regime. As for the LDPR, it was always a party of loyal “national patriots,” who voted in the Duma according to the Kremlin’s wishes.
The Kremlin’s decision to build closer relations with the systemic opposition can be seen as a sign of its return to the old scheme of party management. UR will still keep its key role, but the government will agree to a decrease in the number of UR seats in the State Duma, and will broaden its relations with the other players that are more or less under its control. It is important to note that the next Duma will be elected on a mixed electoral system (half of the lawmakers will be elected from party lists on a proportional basis, and the other half, from individual single-member districts). This means that United Russia will lose its exclusive position as an instrument of ensuring deputies’ loyalty. Besides UR (or its reformed equivalent), there will be systemic opposition parties (including non-parliamentary spoiler parties2), and independent candidates in single-member districts. As in earlier elections, many «independent» candidates will in fact be covert members of UR.
UR will still keep its key role, but the government will broaden its relations with the other players that are more or less under its control.
UR’s position was further undermined by Putin’s decision in 2011 to create the All-Russian People’s Front (ARPF), a coalition of diverse political parties and civil groups that support him. The ARPF is the likely basis for a new pro-regime bloc that would replace UR, particularly in circumstances of political destabilization. As a result, United Russia’s relations with both the systemic opposition and the ARPF, which the regime maintains as a potential threat to the ruling party, will become more competitive.
A third measure that indirectly has had consequences for UR is the “nationalization of elites,” that is, the prohibition for public officials and Duma members to own real estate and most types of financial assets abroad. One reason for this prohibition is an attempt to stop the decline in UR’s reputation, which the Kremlin fears might affect Putin’s personal popularity. According to the Levada Center, 40 percent of Russians agree that UR is a party of «crooks and thieves» (the nickname that the party received thanks to Alexei Navalny). The party’s character leaves much to be desired: there were scandals involving forged dissertations (Vladimir Burmatov) and exposés of party members owning luxury properties abroad (Vladimir Pekhtin) and in Moscow (Irina Yarovaya). In these circumstances, the «nationalization» of the elites has a double objective of not only improving the regime’s reputation but also encouraging loyalty of the elites, whose foreign assets make them susceptible to pressure from outside.
For the ruling party, the «nationalization» of the elites means above all the purging of its ranks from those who have already been «exposed,» and those who might be exposed in the future (one need only recall Alexei Knishev, who left the State Duma of his own accord; Gennady and Dmitry Gudkov suspected him of owning a foreign business.) The «nationalization» of the party elite necessitates an inevitable rotation of personnel. The «new blood» will be much more reliably «patriotic» even compared to UR’s current composition.
“Purging” the ruling party will in many instances take place without any effort by the Kremlin. A number of deputies are expected to leave voluntarily, not eager to face investigations of their foreign property and business. For a considerable number of State Duma members, their position as lawmakers is a supplement to their business; so when faced with a choice between property and a parliamentary seat, many will opt for the former. For senators, who are less involved in public politics, things are much easier. Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matviyenko has already declared that a number of members of the upper house are ready to give up their seats in order to keep their foreign businesses. For example, United Russia member Vitaly Malkin has recently announced his departure from the Federation Council. Matviyenko herself seems ready to push other senators toward the exit.
Thus, the ruling party finds itself under political pressure both from above (the Kremlin fears for Putin’s image) and from below, thanks to the wave of revelatory publications in the media. This has led to unrest within the party, stirred up by fear in the face of uncertainty about its future role. Izvestia, which in the past year has become famous for publishing pro-Kremlin «leaks,» added fuel to the fire. According to the newspaper, an anonymous Kremlin source said that top officials from the presidential administration are quitting United Russia. Tatiana Voronova, who is supervising non-parliamentary parties at the Kremlin, became the latest administration official to leave the UR General Council. The Izvestia source gave a formal explanation for this by stating that a person working for the administration should not be connected to any one particular party. The source added, «We are cooperating with everyone, we do not give anyone special treatment. To be able to work efficiently, all the presidential administration officials should be nonpartisan.» However, Izvestia questioned the abovementioned justification, pointing out that it was not previously necessary for administration officials to abandon leadership positions in the ruling party. For example, in September 2011, Konstantin Kostin, then-deputy head of the internal politics department at the presidential administration, was officially elected to the Presidium of United Russia’s General Council.
Izvestia‘s information looks ambiguous: in fact, the newspaper is talking about a total exodus of Kremlin officials from UR, which can be seen as the first sign of the ruling party’s dismantling. But is this really true? After all, United Russia remains a stable and reliable force, which gives the Kremlin control over Parliament. Under current circumstances, UR’s declining position means that another scenario is being devised. For instance, a new pro-Kremlin coalition could emerge from the All-Russia People’s Front. The publication in Izvestia looks like a deliberate leak, possibly addressed to United Russia leader and Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev. In this case, it can be interpreted as a move against Medvedev with the aim of taking the ruling party out from under his leadership (even if only a formal one.) It may also be a sign of Medvedev’s upcoming dismissal, since a downgrading of UR will deprive him of his last political resource.
Growing tensions within the elite cause deputies (especially United Russia members) to feel nervous. According to a survey on the mood of the Russian elites, conducted by Kommersant-Vlast magazine, the expulsion of deputies creates strong emotional pressure in the State Duma. «The rules of the game are changing drastically,» affirm anonymous representatives of the bureaucracy and business. The sources of Kommersant-Vlast explain that a number of businessmen lawmakers are leaving the State Duma because UR membership has lost its appeal. In the conditions of strict caucus discipline, the influence of individual deputies on bills is minimal. They cannot abstain from voting on documents such as the Dima Yakovlev Law (the law prohibiting adoption of Russian children by Americans), and can be stripped of their long-desired immunity at any moment. «What immunity are we talking about now?» a United Russia deputy complained to Kommersant-Vlast. “Let’s say a traffic policeman stops you. Can you imagine how the conversation starts? He turns the camera on and says: Do you think that because you are a deputy you can violate traffic rules now?» In a recent interview with Slon.ru, United Russia lawmaker Nikolai Bortsov, whose fortune is estimated by Forbes magazine to be $700 million, said that the government “has begun to wipe its boots with us,” and that many members of Parliament will be leaving the State Duma because of the ban on owning foreign assets.
The elite that has no desire for getting «nationalized» can «explode» under the Kremlin’s pressure. This process can prove destructive to the ruling party.
This especially concerns those deputies who prefer to keep a low profile and are not actively engaged in politics. Professional politicians are in a different situation. «Let us suppose that wealthy businessmen will really leave. They will say that they have had enough and do not want to give account of their houses and assets to anyone. And where will, let us say, Irina Yarovaya or Andrey Isaev go, whose life and purpose are in their parliamentary existence?» asks an anonymous UR member. A Kommersant-Vlast source in the Duma leadership summed it up: «If anyone wants to leave, let him leave. There are 600 people on the United Russia’s electoral list, who will be ready to occupy vacant seats. Incriminating evidence will run out at some point. And those who stay will learn how to correctly fill out [property] declarations and get out of business management in time.»
The «nationalization» of the elites could be a precursor to a reform of the ruling party. The purging of its ranks will hardly be limited to businessmen or deputies who own foreign accounts and move their families to the West. The Kremlin is facing a powerful political challenge, which consists in preserving Parliament’s loyalty in conditions of growing threats both from «below» and from «outside.» Any connection to the West exposes a lawmaker, state employee or official to reprisal. This strain on personnel can be damaging to the regime, because the elite that has no desire for getting «nationalized» can «explode» under the Kremlin’s pressure. This process can prove destructive to the ruling party itself.
It should not be ruled out that the regime is slowly but steadily moving toward an even more authoritarian system, and that, despite the elites’ resistance, the party system will be reformed so that there will be neither systemic opposition nor fully-fledged lawmakers left. The latter will be replaced by ideological «patriots» who will have nothing to lose or hold dear.
1 In Russia, opposition parties in Parliament that are effectively controlled by the Kremlin are referred to as the “systemic” opposition, meaning that they are, in fact, a part of the ruling system. Genuine opposition groups are referred to as the “non-systemic” opposition.
2 “Spoiler parties” are creatures of the regime that appear to be in opposition but whose sole purpose is to split the opposition’s vote.