Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 1

“Russia is Our Home”: How the government tried to create a ruling party, and what came of it

By Aleksandr Buzgalin

In most modern countries, the party that wins the election forms the government. The leaders of today’s Russia have not followed this simple principle: instead, they have come up with tricks that have even political scientists and experts who have seen everything scratching their heads. One such caper in the recent history of our country was the attempt to stand the logic of the political process on its head and to task Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin with cobbling together a ruling party (or, as things turned out, a movement). This was the prehistory of the creation, in May 1995, of the "Russia is Our Home" (ROH) electoral bloc.

The attempt was a failure: ROH is not a normal political party or even a social movement, but a quasi-governmental body. It has announced plans for turning into a political party, but as yet it has no fixed membership. It won only 10.1 percent of the vote in the December 1995 elections to Russia’s State Duma. The smallness of the vote is all the more striking if one considers how many resources were poured into the enterprise.

At present, ROH has 67 seats in the State Duma, 45 of which were won according to the party-list system, while ten ROH deputies were elected in single-mandate constituencies. ROH representatives chair four of the State Duma’s committees.

Since ROH has no formal membership, its local organizations depend on the executive branch. ROH’s ruling Council includes many oblast governors. Accordingly, ROH has approximately 50 seats in the upper house of the Russian parliament, the Federation Council. Its position was, however, somewhat weakened when, in the gubernatorial elections of 1996-1997, several ROH candidates were defeated either by opposition candidates or by pro-government politicians who did not support ROH.

ROH shows little desire to form coalitions with any other political party and movement. Another of the movement’s key characteristics is the lack of interest its leader, Viktor Chernomyrdin, displays in the movement’s day-to-day affairs. In Russia, where political tradition vests special significance in the leader of a party or political movement, Chernomyrdin’s distance from his own organization weakens ROH. Relations between the movement’s leadership and its parliamentary faction are also a problem for ROH (as indeed they are for many of Russia’s political parties).

The reasons for ROH’s weakness and anemic nature include the following:

* First, the very idea of creating ROH was misconceived. Throughout 1994 and 1995, the Russian government was associated in the hearts and minds of the population with economic crisis. Gross domestic product fell in 1994 by 12.6 percent, industrial production by 22.8 percent, and investment by 24.3 percent. Chernomyrdin’s personal popularity was extremely low in those years: he combined Brezhnev’s bureaucratic appearance and tongue-tied speaking style with what turned out in practice to be radical and highly unpopular market policies.

* Second, ROH was conceived as an alternative to "Russia’s Democratic Choice," the party led by former prime minister Yegor Gaidar. Gaidar’s policies had become so unpopular by the time of the December 1995 elections that, despite massive campaign spending, Gaidar’s bloc won only 2 percent of the vote and did not even make it into parliament.

* Third, ROH was envisioned by its creators as one half of a two-party system. It was supposed to act as the ruling counterweight to an opposition party led by former Duma speaker Ivan Rybkin. Just think about it — creating an opposition party on the orders of the president! Rybkin’s efforts to create a mass opposition party failed just as miserably as Chernomyrdin’s half-hearted attempt to set up a ruling party.

* Fourth, the Chernomyrdin bloc was created in the classic nomenklatura-bureaucratic mold: a herd of bureaucrats, holding a wide variety of political views, crowded into it, mostly out of careerist considerations but also under pressure "from above." In the absence of a clear ideology, political line or any other of the standard political reference points, support for the government line was the their only credo. The wide diversity of politicians and bureaucrats that make up the bloc has proved one of the main sources of confrontation and disagreement within it.

* Finally, as in any pro-elite bloc that has access to the feeding trough, ROH contains quite a few cynical and pragmatic politicians of the younger generation who are quite capable of cold-bloodedly betraying their bosses (on whose shoulders they made it into the "paradise" of parliament). This has proved a time bomb for ROH. But although the bomb exploded with a great bang several months ago (with the replacement of parliamentary faction leader Sergei Belyaev and the noisy departure of General Lev Rokhlin), it had little real effect: such people could not shake the foundation of such a bureaucratic monolith.

"Gazprom is Our Home"

ROH’s political platform, set down in its charter, proclaims its devotion to "stability and development, democracy and patriotism, certainty and order." The population was not slow to appreciate that this amounted to little more than a list of vaguely-worded good intentions and that the movement’s real aim was to bolster the governing elite. As soon as ROH was formed, the public dubbed it "Gazprom is Our Home." The formal reason was that Viktor Chernomyrdin had spent much of his career in the oil and gas industry, including as head of the Gazprom monopoly. But there was more to it than that.

Political folklore captured the true nature of the socio-economic and political changes taking place in Russia. Beginning in 1994-95, a special sort of regime began to take shape, which may be called "clan-corporate capitalism." This is composed of a number of strata.

The first stratum consists of products of the semi-collapse ("semi" since, as Mikhail Gorbachev used to say, "it is a continuing process," still far from over) of the old command-administrative system. The single pyramid of authoritarian-bureaucratic government collapsed into a number of smaller pyramids.

Russia’s emerging capitalist relations form the second stratum. But these relations are also bureaucratic and even semi-criminal in nature, for they arose on the basis of formally privatized (but actually still semi-nationalized) enterprises and semi-criminal commercial and financial entities, which retain close ties to the state. Their main business continues to be operations with government short-term obligations, debts of former and current state enterprises, "detouring" budget money through commercial banks, and so on. In many industries (above all, in the fuel and energy complex and the mining and metallurgical industries), the system of gigantic monopolies closely tied to the state survives within Russia’s formally free-market economy.

The third stratum is the semi-feudal clan relations which were resurrected as a result of the excessive activity of the forces that destroyed the Soviet regime, and reproduce the relations that existed in the Tsarist Russian Empire — feudal-monopolistic capitalism.

The interaction of these three strata has produced today’s powerful clan-corporate groups, which are suffused with government-bureaucratic influence and corruption. These groups — which may be either industry-wide or regional — constitute the base of support for the main political forces of contemporary Russia. Moreover, many of these clans diversify their political efforts, supporting a number of political forces simultaneously.

One can draw a number of conclusions from the two years of ROH’s activity in the Duma (and the striking passivity of the movement’s extra-parliamentary organizations). Chief of these is that ROH’s strategy is aimed at stabilizing an economy in crisis and preserving the oligarchic political system.

ROH, which started out as a union of pragmatists representing the interests of the main quasi-government/quasi-private clans, has maintained its core interests throughout all its changes of course. Those politicians of the new generation who wormed their way into the movement without the backing of powerful clan interests have gradually disappeared from the scene, and representatives of competing clans have been squeezed into the background. Gradually, the real strategic position of the bloc’s leaders has become clear. By "leaders" I mean not just Chernomyrdin, but other bigwigs who have almost as much power and control gigantic financial and raw-materials resources. In today’s Russia, that means the oil and gas corporations, followed by some clan-corporations of the military-industrial complex and a few enterprises in the food industry. This last thesis is confirmed by the ratings of the authoritative business magazine Ekspert (No. 38, 1997). Its list of the largest and most profitable companies consists almost exclusively of fuel and energy giants. Among the 20 fastest-growing companies, however, are five food companies, while seven food companies are to be found among the top 20 in terms of productivity.

The economy is ROH’s chief sphere of interest. To achieve its economic goals, the movement will support the present quasi-authoritarian political system, democratic in appearance but oligarchic in essence, and especially, the immense power of the president and the weakness of parliament. ROH never was and never will be an influential force in contemporary Russian politics. The movement’s main strength lies in the status of its leader, Viktor Chernomyrdin. This conclusion bears out our main point: power in contemporary Russia belongs to the top bureaucrats and corporate bosses, not to the population.

Translated by Mark Eckert

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


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