Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 2 Issue: 16

By Nikolai Petrov

One of the main reasons for the launch of the attack on Yukos was the desire to boost the popularity of the United Russia Party as it prepares for December’s State Duma elections.

In recent months, there has been an important qualitative evolution of this “party of power.” The Kremlin cheerfully set about building up party structures in the regions so as to circumvent the governors, but it now finds itself embroiled in countless local battles, many of which it is losing.

The definitive transformation of United Russia from the “Kremlin” party of power into a party of “the Kremlin and the governors” was clear at a recent United Russia convention, when the six governors and presidents [1] already on its Supreme Council were joined by another half dozen influential regional heads. [2] Governors now make up half of the party’s Supreme Council, which, according to its new constitution, can propose motions on the composition of the party leadership and draw up the lists of party candidates in federal elections.

The unusual idea of recruiting non-party governors and ministers to the party leadership is reminiscent of the “inviolable bloc of communists and non-party personnel” of Soviet times. The plethora of governors in the party leadership who came to power in the early Yeltsin years and even pre-Yeltsin–men such as Yury Luzhkov, Aman Tuleev and Mintimer Shaimiev–only serve to strengthen the resemblance. It is no accident that of the seven heavyweight leaders from the first Presidium of the State Council, four have gone on to join United Russia’s Supreme Council.

On the one hand, the situation resembles what happened in 1999, when thirty-nine regional leaders appealed to the people of Russia three months before the elections, and then a week later eight of them took part in launching the inter-regional Unity movement. But when it came to drawing up lists of candidates, the only member of the gubernatorial corpus to be included was the governor of Tver, Vladimir Platov.

At that time, however, the federal presidency was in a much weaker condition, and the governors had to be assiduously coaxed into the Kremlin’s party. Now the situation is quite different: Regional leaders are lining up to join and there’s not enough room for them all. The party of power is now standing firmly on its own two feet and has no need of ballast in the form of governors who are having trouble securing their own re-elections.

The new-style United Russia, as a party of regional bosses, would also appear to be similar to the Our Home is Russia (NDR) party of 1995, but with two important differences. First, it is the party of the president rather than of the prime minister (which is why, incidentally, its criticism of the government is unusually sharp for a party of power). Second, the regions now are bound to the Moscow leadership not only by a financial tether–which is still in the hands of the governors–but also by many more threads and cables that are unrelated to the governors. These include the numerous security structures, in which the mechanism for the horizontal rotation of personnel–which had grown rusty from long disuse–has been set in motion again, and whose whole leadership has been radically changed. There is also the wide network of political offices open to the public, which were established by the presidential envoys. These offices act both as channels for communication and as transmission belts for the initiation of mass campaigns in the regions. In addition, there is the vertical hierarchy of electoral commissions, with the Central Electoral Commission at its head.

One interesting and highly promising venture launched earlier this year was the creation in many regions of councils of United Russia supporters, including the non-party heads of local security, information and other federal structures. Moreover, “volunteer helpers” of this kind are working with the colossal ministerial administrative resources of the Interior Ministry (MVD)–almost two million strong. MVD head Boris Gryzlov combines the MVD job with that of leader of United Russia. This combination of resources makes United Russia invincible in competition with the “civilian” parties.

United Russia claims 400,000 members, along with 2,400 member organizations, which puts it in second place after the Communist Party (KPRF). In addition, United Russia reports having 250,000 “supporters.” The party also claims to have over 2000 deputies at all levels, including 151 deputies in the State Duma, forty-one members of the Federation Council, and over 500 mayors and deputies’ fractions in forty-two regional parliaments. For such “wealth,” seemingly accumulated in no time at all, there is a price to pay. And that price is having to indulge group and individual ambitions, and to put up with confusion and internal squabbles among the conflict-ridden party ranks in the provinces.

A striking illustration of the use of post facto maneuvers as a way of forcing the growth of the party ranks was provided by the recent gubernatorial elections in Magadan Oblast and the election of the State Council in Bashkortostan. In the first instance the official United Russia candidate was defeated, but the winner was later admitted to the party and the Magadan election was recorded as a United Russia victory. In the second case, Bashkortostan President Murtaza Rakhimov’s preferred candidates, including his son and nephew, ran on a United Russia ticket, and United Russia was credited officially with having won three-quarters of the vote. In reality, however, the State Council was, as before, under the president’s absolute control. It was not surprising, therefore, that one of the first acts of the State Council was to resurrect the 1994 bilateral treaty with the federal authorities and to return to the practice of having judges and security officials appointed by republican rather than federal authorities.

So, having given up hope of creating its own new political army, United Russia, like its predecessors, is gathering the governors beneath its banner. The party seems to have struck a truce in its struggles with independent-minded governors during this period of mobilization. This, at least, is the conclusion to be drawn from the events of late April, when two of United Russia’s regional branch chiefs, who had gotten themselves into conflicts with the governors of Novgorod and Pskov, were sacked. In St. Petersburg, on the other hand, clashes in the Legislative Assembly between United Russia factions loyal to the governor and to the presidential representative resulted in a victory for the latter. The governor, Vladimir Yakovlev, was eventually obliged to resign, and took up a position as deputy prime minister.

The Kremlin is also using the governors as a lever in its bid to create an obedient Duma. This means letting influential governors bring in their own people beneath the United Russia banner, elected either from party lists or from single mandate constituencies. The divided loyalties that inevitably arise as a result of this do not seem to worry the Kremlin. Once it has achieved its majority it can then enforce unity within the ranks. And the governors have little choice but to join in this game. So far, with only a few losses, they have managed to survive Putin’s first four year term. Real centralization is off the agenda, at least until the electoral cycle comes to an end.

One of the main problems that United Russia ran into at the very moment of its formation from three political parties–Unity, Fatherland and All Russia–was the dependence of its regional branches on the governors. Because Fatherland and All Russia were the governors’ creations, their leaders are now trying to use United Russia as a means of getting involved in federal politics. On the one hand, the creation of United Russia was a victory for the federal center over the governors, who lost their own pro-governor parties. In some respects it is not so much that Unity swallowed up Fatherland-All Russia (OVR), but that the newly formed United Russia appropriated the leadership, cadre politics, style and image of the old OVR.

In order to prevent United Russia from being turned into a channel for the governors to influence federal politics, the party needs to pull its regional network out from under the control of the governors and to rid its leadership of the former leaders of Fatherland and All Russia. However, as the recent elections in Bashkortostan, Kemerovo and other regions has shown, it has not managed to do this. Moreover, the governors are backed by the administrative resources that United Russia needs. As a result, the regional leaders are now among the chief campaign managers for local duma elections.

This pre-election alliance of the governors and United Russia will enable the party to pick up regional votes. But the very fact of the alliance marks both the Kremlin’s abandonment of its anti-governor plans and its switch from a model of confrontation to one of inclusion. Whether this is a tactical move or a new general strategy, only time will tell.

1. Yury Luzhkov (Moscow), Mintimer Shaimiev (Tatarstan), Nikolai Merkushkin (Mordovia), Murtaza Rakhimov (Bashkortostan), Sergei Sobyanin (Tyumen Oblast), and Vladimir Yakovlev (St. Petersburg). The last, however, resigned when appointed deputy prime minister in June.

2. At the United Russia convention in late March, six of the seven newly elected members of the Supreme Council were regional leaders. These were Aleksandr Khloponin (Krasnoyarsk), Vladimir Chub (Rostov), Aman Tuleev (Kemerovo), Yegor Stroev (Orel), Viktor Ishaev (Khabarovsk), Vyacheslav Pozgalev (Vologda).

Nikolai Petrov is head of the Center for Political Geographic Research and a leading research associate with the Institute of Geography at the Russian Academy of Sciences.