Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has given the torpid election campaign in Russia an all too familiar direction with the suggestion, or rather the order, to build the Russian Popular Front that would mobilize “everyone who is united in their common desire to strengthen our country, united by the idea of finding optimal solutions to the challenges before us.” The idea, which according to Putin had come to him late evening before the presentation, was announced at a conference of the United Russia party, which duly hailed the initiative of its leader (Kommersant, May 10). The irony of this quasi-enthusiastic show is in Putin’s obvious dissatisfaction with the performance of United Russia, which is widely perceived as a party of corrupt nomenclature, and so it would have to grant up to 25 percent of positions in its list to representatives of trade unions, veterans and even car-owners organizations (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 13).
Putin has wasted no time in setting the idea in motion meeting with activists of the instantly formed Front, approving its manifesto and instructing it to stage street rallies (Kommersant, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, May 13). The direct and organic connection of this political “technology” with the Soviet pattern of staging pseudo-elections, in which the only registered participant was the “indestructible bloc of communists and non-members,” is not only distinguishable but even demonstratively emphasized as the only proven method of cementing political unity (www.gazeta.ru, May 13). It is also a means of de-legitimizing the opposition, since according to Putin, the Front will include all who “share common values connected with love of the country, improvement of people’s standards of living, strengthening of Russia’s power, and the search for just solutions in the social sphere,” by implication, those who dare to oppose this campaign, profess different values.
Putin assured that President Dmitry Medvedev supported his idea but the latter expressed his attitude in a rather elliptic way confirming that he understands “the motives of the party wanting to maintain its influence in the nation,” but arguing that “not a single political force can consider itself to be dominant.” This contrasts sharply with Putin’s evaluation of United Russia’s control over the legislative branch as “a good, healthy dominance,” but there is more to Medvedev’s insistence on fair representation of other political forces in the parliament than just a predilection for pluralism. As Gleb Pavlovsky, a political consultant who was recently expelled from the Kremlin for spelling out his views too clearly, points out, there is no place for Medvedev in the Popular Front, which effectively isolates the president from the parliamentary elections (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 12).
Medvedev is too experienced in the court intrigues to miss the Putin-centrism of the new electoral construct so he warns against attempts to build the system of power around a particular person since over-concentration of power leads either to stagnation or to civil war (Kommersant, May 14). This will hardly stop the legion of self-serving bureaucrats from closing ranks under the banner of stability marching to the drum of more-of-the-same, but it informs the opportunists that not joining the Front is just fine. Medvedev knows that many of the exorbitantly rich “oligarchs” are tired of Putin’s short leash and that the no-small army of office clerks could become his constituency (Vedomosti, May 12). He is perfectly aware that thousands of bloggers are ridiculing Putin’s brainstorm – but also that they are making much fun of his own timidity and temporizing (www.besttoday, May 14). Going against Putin’s party-political line remains impossible for Medvedev but he can distance himself from the old Putinists who are re-grouping in the new Front, expecting that the disgusting stylistics of this enterprise would turn away many smart and glamour voters.
Medvedev’s problem is that he cannot create any meaningful alternative as the two long-serving opposition parties – the communists and the Zhirinovsky camp-followers – are patently uninspiring, and the attempt to organize a pro-modernization party has failed to acquire momentum. Nevertheless, he promises that the political season will be interesting and even argues that “if we assume that everything is already decided and will develop in accordance with a particular scenario, then our political system has no future.” He probably has only his own political future in mind, but the angst that comes through his smooth sentences testifies to the maturing understanding in many parts and products of the system that Putinism has arrived in a blind-alley (Novaya Gazeta, May 12).
As the rank and file of Putin’s Front are dressing their lines, Medvedev has only a few weeks to turn the game around if he has not given up on the recently so very obvious longing to go for a second term and become a real president. The earliest occasion to make a move comes on May 18, when Medvedev holds a rather intriguing press-conference. One symbolic step could be expressing support for Aleksei Navalny, a popular blogger who has launched an anti-corruption initiative and dubbed the United Russia as the “party of thieves and swindlers” – and is now facing a blatantly fabricated criminal prosecution (The New Times, May 16). Another word that might make an impact is about Andrei Sannikov, a candidate at the recent presidential elections in Belarus, who was sentenced to five years hard labor for inciting unrest (Kommersant, May 16). Perhaps the most decisive measure could be to fire Nikolai Patrushev, a former Director of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and Putin’s faithful loyalist, from the position of the Secretary of the Security Council. Ten days ago, Medvedev signed a decree expanding the authority of the Security Council in overseeing policy-making in the government and controlling the money flows; such an empowering makes little sense with Patrushev in charge of the proceedings (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 11).
Even all three steps would amount only to an irritating distraction in Putin’s confident march to the Kremlin. Medvedev is intelligent enough to understand that he has lost too much time pretending to be the president and so is destined to go into the political annals as a joke. There is, nevertheless, a difference between a sad silly joke and a bold joke worth remembering.