Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 18

By Aleksandr Buzgalin

It is no coincidence that this year has seen such intense activity in the formation of gubernatorial blocs prior to the Duma elections scheduled for December 1999. There are many reasons for this, but two are particularly important.


First, the governors have gradually gained real power in the regions, but at the same time have become distanced from real federal power. In their respective patrimonies, the “red” (those sympathetic to the opposition, the KPRF) and the “white” (pro-presidential) princelings not only enjoy almost total control of the power structures and the social sphere, but are also involved with one of the dominant business groups. All of this means that they can consider themselves the masters of the regions. The operative word here is “consider,” because in fact they continue to control only an insignificant part of the legal, “official” life of the oblast centers, and are hostages both to the oblast administration and to the most influential business groups, sometimes relying on them for support.

At a federal level, the Federation Council–the upper house of the Russian parliament made up of the “senators” (oblast governors, presidents of autonomous republics and heads of the representative organs in the regions)–is a relatively weak institution. Its main function is to support or reject what the Duma (the lower house) draws up, and to support the Duma against the president, or the president against the Duma in delicate confrontational situations between these two branches of power.

To begin with, the governors tended to toe the presidential line, because they could only resolve the economic and social problems in their regions by cooperating with the executive branch, headed by the president. The situation began to change, however, when gubernatorial elections increased the number of opposition politicians among them. It changed even more when it became clear that Boris Yeltsin’s time in office was coming to an end. They had to prepare for a change in leadership, and to decide who to back. No clear successor had emerged, and the elections to the State Duma were to establish the real balance of political forces aspiring to supreme power in the country. Against this background, the prospect of gaining a foothold in the Duma could only be an attractive one for the governors.

Second, another reason for the governors’ assault on the Duma was the weakening of almost all centrist organizations (parties and blocs) in Russia in 1998-99. A particularly important manifestation of this trend was the sharp decline of Our Home is Russia–a movement closely linked with centrist governors–after Chernomyrdin’s dismissal as prime minister. After that the governors lost a great deal of sleep searching for a “party of power” to affiliate themselves to. And when such a creature failed to present itself, they gradually came to the logical conclusion: Why not form a party of power themselves?

And so they did–and not just the one. There is Fatherland, led by Yuri Luzhkov, and there is Russia’s Voice, All Russia and Unity. Two of these blocs, which were originally created separately, have merged, giving rise to the electoral bloc Fatherland-All Russia (OVR), and this article is devoted to an analysis of this bloc.


The first question–about the composition and the leaders of the movement created in August 1999–is much easier to answer than the second.

We have already written in Prism about Fatherland’s first steps. It should be added that to start with this organization could number among its assets the executive head of just one subject of the Russian Federation, albeit the most important one: Moscow. Yuri Luzhkov desperately battled to increase Fatherland’s influence in the other regions of Russia, rightly fearing that a purely Muscovite movement would have little chance of gaining nationwide support. He had some success, but Fatherland never did manage to become truly nationwide in scope.

All Russia chose itself a very modest name and rounded off its manifesto with the phrase “We are all Russia,” but naturally did not and will not become the force that unites “all” Russians. This is simply impossible in a country riddled with great socioeconomic and ethnic contradictions; a country whose real masters have not learned to observe certain “rules,” let alone democracy, and who do not want to share their super-profits with a hungry people.

Nevertheless, All Russia attracted quite a number of influential regional leaders. The presidium of the political council of this movement includes the president of the Republic of Ingushetia, R.S. Aushev; the governor of Irkutsk oblast, B.A. Govorin; the head of the Astrakhan oblast administration, A.P. Guzhvin; the chairman of the state council of the Republic of Tatarstan, F.Kh. Mukhametshin: the governor of Khanty-Mansiisk autonomous okrug, A.V. Filipenko: the president of the Republic of Tatarstan, M.Sh. Shaimiev; the governor of St. Petersburg, V.A. Yakovlev; and others. Figures like Shaimiev and Yakovlev are very symbolic. On the whole it can be said that this was a serious initiative to unite the governors and presidents of autonomous republics. Together these make a formidable political bloc.

But as regards the aims and tasks of the movement, the situation is much less clear cut. I shall quote a few extracts from OVR’s manifesto, because for an understanding of the substance of this structure it is important to look not just at the content, but at the form and even the style of this manifesto, the “words” (it is as yet too early to assess the deeds).

“The state’s duty, after all, is to turn to the people, to their everyday needs and aspirations, to provide the constitutional principles of a social state with real content, to implement an effective system of social, employment and economic guarantees for citizens… We realize that without overcoming the grave spiritual crisis the idea of a strong, civilized and wealthy Russia is only a dream. In a society where culture is declining, where the education system built up over centuries is collapsing, where elementary moral standards are ceasing to apply, it is impossible to ensure the conditions for a full and dignified human life… We want the Russian authorities to recognize their responsibilities to society, to become self-critical, open and efficient… It will require huge effort to drag the country’s economy out of the slough of despond, to stop the destruction of the production infrastructure and the misappropriation of “human capital” amassed over decades….”

Concrete steps are proposed: (1) “to support domestic manufacturers and protect the domestic market; (2) to develop the real sector and reinforce the regulatory role of the state; (3) to support agriculture and ensure the country is self-sufficiency in foodstuffs; (4) to increase people’s income, particularly those in the public sector; (5) to implement measures to support the Russian family–from the youngest to the oldest members; (6) to provide benefits to women bringing up children; (7) to improve the lot of pensioners; to raise standards in medical care; (8) to provide support for basic research; to introduce and develop new technologies; (9) to improve the social status of Russian scientists; (10) to provide accessible and good quality education….”

What do these pronouncements mean in practice? At first sight, this is a critical, constructive movement that cares about Russia, its economy and culture and its people. A closer reading throws up a number of inconsistencies. On the one hand, there is the appearance of decisive criticism of the current system, but on the other hand–this criticism has no clear target.

There is another paradox. On the one hand, declaring a program of concrete changes, and on the other, proposing as a priority a number of abstract well-meaning platitudes (if not crassitudes), far removed from the real capabilities of a country which is indeed declining. However, a third level of analysis is possible, which penetrates through to the more weighty themes hidden behind the general phrases, and allows an insight into the true policies of the bloc. Let us look at a few more provisions from the manifesto. “The major problem facing the current phase of political development in Russia is the imbalance in relations between the federal center and the regions. Russia is strong not only in its entirety, but also in the diversity of its constituent parts. We must preserve this asset. The federal center must continue to be strong. But in a democratic state it is essential to combine its authority and might with the authority and might of the regions….”

For all the roundness and brevity of these theses, we can establish at least the following. First, this bloc is not planning to implement a right-of-center, “westernizing” reform model, nor does it intend to go down the socialist path (this concept gets absolutely no mention in the manifesto). Second, it is clear that this movement is not simply a centrist one, but one with a fairly well-defined moderate statist bent–the program includes a reference to “strengthening the regulatory role of the state.” Third, this bloc stresses above all the diversity and growing role of the regions, and in this differs from others claiming to unite “all of Russia” under their banner.


It has already been mentioned above that Fatherland and All Russia were originally created as separate social and political movements. Moreover, some people saw All Russia as the main rival and counterweight to Luzhkov’s Fatherland. Indeed, significant contradictions do exist, which are generally far removed from the “left/right” issue, but are mainly related to the struggle for certain economic advantages, and to conflicts (or, conversely, partnerships) between the elites (the new and the old nomenklatura), the regions and so on. Against this background, division into Moscow (Fatherland) and All (the rest of) Russia is inevitable, as is the creation of a number of alliances of regional elites.

Some of these elites will gravitate towards the capital (indeed are already doing so), and support Fatherland, while others will play at defending the periphery. The contradictions between the governors and the presidents of autonomous republics are also very significant (the latter enjoy a great deal more independence). And finally, it is quite predictable that these blocs will be very amorphous; many of the participants will move from one structure to another, because there are no major differences between them (as regards the social base, political orientation, ideas and policies). This is why the leaders of the two largest blocs, who had indeed started out as the main rivals in the battle for a gubernatorial party of power, decided to join forces. Without doing so, their chances of victory at the Duma elections, let alone of pushing through their candidate for president in 2000, would have remained illusory.

As for the project to unite the gubernatorial blocs, Our Home is Russia and even the right-wing liberal bloc Right Cause into a single coalition (many analysts believe that this initiative was being pushed by the Yeltsin administration), this plan failed, as was predicted. The real politics of such leaders as Luzhkov, Shaimiev and Yakovlev, and the manifesto policies of their movement, are a far cry from center-right, westernist policies. In addition, the governors are trying to portray themselves as a new political force, and joining forces with former prime ministers responsible for the dire economic crisis would not be very advantageous for them.

4. TARGET 2000

The merger of Fatherland-All Russia does not just offer the bloc good prospects at the State Duma elections. There is a real chance that this movement’s candidate can win the presidential election in 2000. OVR has already secured an important victory: It has managed to place at the top of its party list the most popular politician in Russia today, former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, who once categorically stated that he would not be taking part in the political race.

Success at the Duma elections (if OVR’s results are at least close to those of the KPRF, which is now the bloc’s main rival) would allow the “governors’ bloc” to hope that their candidate would make it to the second round of the presidential elections. And then the 1996 scenario would be repeated, the communist candidate losing to his rival by a small margin…

It is this prospect that inspires a feeling of abhorrence towards OVR among the president’s administration and the political groups which support Yeltsin. For OVR is nigh on becoming the “party of power” not just in name, but in practice. And this means that the current bureaucracy, the oligarchic groups and the politicians who have rallied around Boris Yeltsin will all have to make room for–and cede a significant part of their current influence and income to–other people and other groups.

Moreover, an extremely irksome but entirely plausible prospect is taking shape before their eyes. For all their dislike of the OVR (particularly Luzhkov) and of the future presidential candidate Primakov, it cannot be ruled out that the pro-Yeltsin forces will have to support this candidate, whether they like it or not, against the KPRF candidate (who will probably be Zyuganov). This is why a desperate struggle is now going on to undermine OVR’s authority, to reduce the bloc’s popularity in the opinion polls and eventually to force it to enter into a compromise with the pro-Yeltsin political groups for the presidential race in 2000 (because these groups can certainly not be relied upon to win).

In conclusion, I should like to warn the reader of the danger of overestimating the constructive potential of the regional leaders and their blocs: They are an integral part of the current ruling elite, and to a significant extent are responsible for the crisis of recent years. It remains unlikely that they will secure overall victory at the elections to the Duma. Even if OVR manages to achieve some significant success, at best it will increase the level of state paternalism and protectionism and reduce the level of “shock” disruptions. This is not the worst evil in Russian politics, but neither is it the route to modernization and renewal.

Aleksandr Buzgalin is a doctor of economics and a professor at Moscow State University. He is a leader of Russia’s Democratic Socialist Movement.