Publication: Prism Volume: 7 Issue: 5

By Elena Chinyaeva

On April 27, Russia celebrated the 95th anniversary of its parliament. There was also something to celebrate, given that a fairly coherent political system is emerging out of the country’s amorphous politics. Still, the fact that the new centrist coalition in the State Duma is avowedly pro-presidential puts the political process at risk: It means the executive can get any piece of legislation, however controversial, through the legislature. It also means increased responsibility for the executive branch, because the failure of reforms can no longer be blamed on a Communist-dominated Duma. Given that he can only rely on a team of close supporters in the bureaucracy, President Vladimir Putin must be quick and decisive in order to avoid a political downfall. With a bit of luck he might surmount economic difficulties. Politically, however, Russia remains an artificial democracy.


On April 12, two centrist factions in the Duma–the Unity bloc and the Fatherland bloc–announced their merger. A few days later, all four centrist Duma factions–Unity, Fatherland, Russian Regions and People’s Deputy- established a coalition. Similar associations already exist on the left–the People’s Patriotic Union, which includes the Communists and the Agrarians–and on the right, between the Union of Right-Wing Forces (SPS) and Yabloko. For Russia, the emergence of political system with three “flanks” is an achievement not to be taken for granted.

Unlike in developed democracies, class or corporate interests have never shaped political parties in Russia. Rather, they have been brought to life by groups of intelligentsia. The social revolutionaries, who viewed themselves a peasants’ party, and the social democrats, who claimed to represent Russian workers, were established by–and consisted of–the same breed of educated people prone to heroic exaltation, fanaticism and social utopianism. The new parties established in the wake of the Tsar’s October 17, 1905 manifesto, which granted suffrage for selected strata of the population, had similar birthmarks: an inclination to radicalism, the elitism of their leaders and little mass support in a society largely ignorant of political work. Twelve years later the Communists installed one-party rule. Russia inherited from the Soviet period a fairly homogeneous society with a thin layer of socially active intelligentsia, which once again assumed the role of heralding society’s different interests. With astonishing zeal, equaled only by their lack of appropriate skills, representatives of this Soviet educated class went about creating various parties–democratic, nationalist, liberal, military, patriotic, agrarian–that often consisted of few members. In December 1993, thirty-two election blocs competed for the seats in the Duma. The factionalism was immense, particularly among democrats, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), emerged victorious. The democratic bloc, Russia’s Choice, led by the government’s original reformist head, Yegor Gaidar, came second, with the Communists finishing third.

On the eve of the 1995 parliamentary elections, the rule giving representation only to those parties who received at least 5 percent of the vote or more was introduced. Nonetheless, forty-three parties and election blocs participated in the December 1995 elections. It was during this contest that the first was made to tame Russia’s political chaos by creating a two-party system. In April 1995, the first ‘party of power’ was established–Our Home Is Russia (NDR), headed by Viktor Chernomyrdin, the former chief of the Russian gas monopoly and the then prime minister. NDR was meant to counterbalance a left-leaning “constructive opposition” that was supposed to gather together in a left-of-center bloc headed by Ivan Rybkin, who was then Duma speaker. However the Rybkin bloc failed, while NDR came in behind the LDPR and the Communists, finishing with only 10.1 percent of the vote. Among the democrats, only Grigory Yavlinsky’s Yabloko got into the Duma, while Gaidar’ alliance did not even pass the 5-percent barrier. The Communist-led left proceeded to block any attempts by reformers in the government to complete the country’s liberal transformation.

Anticipating Vladimir Putin’s accession as president, the most rigorous attempt to structure Russia’s political space was undertaken on the eve of the 1999 parliamentary elections. The pro-presidential Unity election bloc, headed by Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, came in a close second behind the Communists, robbing the political left of a parliamentary majority. Still more interesting was the ascent of the Union of the Right-Wing Forces (SPS), the right-liberal election bloc headed by former Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko, Boris Nemtsov and Irina Khakamada, which finished fourth, beating both Yabloko and Zhirinovsky’s LDPR. Out of the roughly thirty parties that participated in those elections, the only two, the Communists and the SPS, represented more or less comprehensive political ideologies. Most of the other political forces, including the rival Unity and Fatherland-All Russia blocs, fought for the same stratum of the apolitical Russian electorate using the same patriotic slogans. The Unity bloc won because it had stronger administrative support. Meanwhile, the success of the SPS was a sign that a new stratum with distinct political and economic interests had emerged. While Yabloko has remained largely a party of the intelligentsia–a party of “good people” with a generally prodemocratic but vague outlook–the SPS had its social base in the new generation of managers, entrepreneurs and intellectuals.

Following the elections, the SPS set as its goal to establish a new party by dissolving itself and merging with Yabloko. This, however, has proved particularly difficult, because the two parties in fact represent two different outlooks–Yabloko being a social democratic party and the SPS being the proponent of right-liberal values. In addition, Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky has a record of rejecting all alliance proposals. The two parties have nevertheless formed a loose coalition in the Duma.

In March, a clumsy attempt was undertaken to write the Communists off as a major political force when the Unity bloc threatened to support the Communist vote of no confidence against the government. It could have led to pre-term elections and a further weakening of the Communists. However, this political coup failed on March 14, when the no-confidence measure failed to gather sufficient votes for passage.

Now, with the merger of the Unity and Fatherland blocs and the establishment of a centrist coalition in the Duma, the goal of establishing a political system comprised of three “flanks” seems to have been achieved.


Taken at face value, the latest advancements in structuring Russia’s political space are good news. However, the merger of until-recently hostile political forces–the Unity and Fatherland blocs–underscores the worrying fact that Russian politics lacks any principles, except that of expediency. Now united in support for President Putin, the newly established centrist party could bury the political process itself–the term “political process” being understood here as the public elaboration of a consensus on important issues through democratic procedures.

So, why has it been done? Judging by President Putin’s annual address to the parliament, in which he concentrated on economic and social issues, the head of state’s goal is to realize an ambitious program of reforms. He needs a supportive parliament to approve a wide range of pressing legislation: a new budget, an anticorruption law, a land code, military reform and changes in the judicial system and the criminal code, to name just few. With the political importance of the parliament reduced, the president, already vested with great powers by the constitution, has assumed even greater responsibility for planned reforms.

The president is rigidly constrained by time, given the need to make large foreign debt payments in 2003, and to act quickly while his popularity is still high. The debt payments could undermine the still-weak Russian economy in the absence of structural reform. Meanwhile, the president’s core electorate, nostalgic for Soviet-style social benefits, will soon realize that social reforms advocated by the president–involving housing, the natural monopolies, education and health care–will mean a higher cost of living, while the possibilities to earn more will come later–that is, if the reforms are successful.

And, as always, a balanced macroeconomic policy is the last thing on the mind of the ordinary voter struggling to make the ends meet. Putin runs the high risk of soon being accused of having “let people down.” While the president has little for parliamentary politics, draft legislation is prepared in abundance by his administration and the government, with little public discussion. The president’s authority notwithstanding, this ensures that opposition from the entities to be reformed–the army, the military-industrial complex, the education and medical professions, the judiciary–will grow. Their representatives are demand a broad public discussion of the intended changes. Rightly so, perhaps, but the experience of the past ten years suggest that public discussion in Russia is often a best way to bury the very idea of reform. The president is willing to take the responsibility for doing what he thinks is necessary without worrying about a consensus. He appears to think that all he needs is a circle of reliable officials.


On March 28, two days after the first anniversary of his election as president, Vladimir Putin made new appointments to the government: civilians Boris Gryzlov, formerly head of the Unity faction in the Duma, and Mikhail Fradkov, formerly minister of foreign trade and then deputy head of the Security Council, became Interior Minister and Tax Police chief, respectively. Sergei Ivanov, the head of the Security Council and retired intelligence general, became Defense Minister, while Lyubov Kudelina, formerly in charge of the military budget in the Finance Ministry, became Ivanov’s deputy, responsible for the Defense Ministry’s finances. Aleksandr Rumyantsev, head of the Kurchatov Institute of Nuclear Physics, became the new head of the Atomic Energy Ministry.

The tradition of building a power structure based on regional networking and close-knit centers of influence persists. Just as Boris Yeltsin brought to Moscow people with whom he used to work in the Sverdlovsk region, Putin has brought to power his former colleagues from St Petersburg. Yeltsin filled high positions with those who supported him during the failed August 1991 putsch. Putin, for his part, facilitated the elevation of the Security Council–which was headed by his friend and a colleague from St. Petersburg, Sergei Ivanov–as a new center of influence rivaling the presidential administration, headed by Aleksandr Voloshin.

Meanwhile Putin has stopped halfway in his effort to “demilitarize” Russian public life, having tackled only three of over ten ‘power’ ministries. A thorough reform of the central apparatus is in the works: the number of ministries will be reduced, while their heads will act as presidential representatives responsible for certain tasks–Sergei Ivanov for military reform, German Gref for economic reform and Boris Gryzlov for reform of the police. Another hot issue on the political agenda is a profound judicial reform, which has been elaborated by Dmitry Kozak, the deputy head of the presidential administration, who is also from Putin’s St. Petersburg team. He is also likely to be appointed to a high post, perhaps that of the procurator general. Another round of personnel changes, this time in the economic block, is also anticipated.

If the president sticks to his pledge of liberal reform, then with a bit of luck–if the international financial and oil markets stay stable–he might succeed in pushing through the intended economic reforms. However, the recent changes would leave Russia’s political system a somewhat artificial democracy, in which the political process is determined not so much by democratic procedures as by administrative decisions.

Elena Chinyaeva, who holds a doctorate in modern history from Oxford University, is a writer with the leading Russian political weekly Kommersant-Vlast.