By V.A. Mironov
On the eve of December’s parliamentary elections, Russia’s political landscape is becoming much more complicated. First, internal political tension is growing, which is natural enough given the uncertainty and unpredictability of the people’s verdict on the electoral blocs, parties and candidates. Second, the candidates for seats in the State Duma are making use of the media outlets under their control to resort to more and more sophisticated publicity tricks, more and more aggressive propaganda and bigger and bolder advertising campaigns. Third, new participants are getting involved in the election campaign, at both the regional and federal levels. Specifically, the federal executive has become directly involved in the campaign, in the persons of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Minister for Civil Defense, Emergency Situations and Natural Disasters Sergei Shoigu, and the presidential administration, who are all able to bring together the existing resources of their administrative structures in support of pro-president and pro-government candidates. In addition to this, in a number of Russian regions the December parliamentary elections are being held concurrently with elections for the heads of federation subjects. This means that local political elites have to distribute the financial, administrative and media resources they have amassed, and have to resolve often conflicting tasks in the election campaign.
Many politicians are expressing the hope that the results of the Duma elections will lower the heat of political passions. There is considerable evidence, however, that the level of political tension in Russia will be maintained and may even rise as the upcoming year’s presidential election approaches.
SMALL BUT PRECIOUS
This election campaign is characterized, first, by the precise structure of the federal electoral field. Despite the large number of parliamentary candidates on the federal lists, only four or six parties and blocs are genuine candidates. Polls show that the remaining parties are capable of attracting only up to 1 percent of those who turn out to vote. At the same time, up to 5 percent of voters will vote against all the candidates. In other words, unlike in 1995, when the total number of supporters of parties which surpassed the 5 percent barrier was just over 50 percent of those who voted, this time around they will number 70-80 percent. As a result, Russia’s parliamentary system will have a broader social base. The most likely outcome is that left-wing groups will have a majority in the Duma, though not a constitutional majority.
The numbers voting for the KPRF, Yabloko and the LDPR pretty much tally with their core of loyal supporters. These parties have only a very small number of “floating” voters, who only decide who to support just before they vote. On the other hand, OVR (Fatherland-All Russia), Unity and what remains of NDR (Our Home is Russia) have an overlapping electorate. It is no coincidence that the second feature of the current electoral landscape is the bitterness of the clashes within the “party of power” and the sharp escalation in tension between the presidential administration and the leaders of Fatherland-All Russia. Hopes are dwindling of a reconciliation between the Kremlin and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who is one of the first three names on the OVR federal list; the possibility of such a reconciliation had been mooted on a number of occasions by highly placed representatives of the president’s administration, on condition that the Moscow chief drop his presidential ambitions.
One of the main election resources at the disposal of the Unity movement is the support of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. He has announced that he will be voting for Unity candidates, whose leaders have declared their aim to be the parliamentary buttress for the federal government.
In other words, voters are being offered a choice between Yevgeny Primakov and Vladimir Putin. But a closer look reveals that the differences between these two politicians are minimal. Politically, Primakov advocates increasing the powers of the elected legislative institutions, forming a government based on “parliamentary majority”, and, simultaneously, strengthening the position of the government within federal state power structures and limiting to some extent the powers of the head of state. Putin considers it vital, in the current political situation, to retain, unamended, the current constitution which defines the powers of all federal structures. At the same time, without ruling out the possibility of strengthening the position of the government within the power structures, he advocates that the government’s buttress should not be just parliament and the president, but the “widest spectrum of forces… in the country as a whole.”
Meanwhile, in their economic outlook they differ only in that the former prime minister is prepared to reexamine the results of privatization, while the incumbent rules this out, stating that there can be no talk of a redistribution of property. His view is that the losses from this course of action would be greater than those from the errors committed in the privatization process.
It would seem that the most important consequence of the parliamentary election will be the emergence of the most promising candidate from the party of power, capable of uniting most of its members around him in the race for victory in the presidential election.
DON’T PUT ALL YOUR EGGS IN ONE BASKET
It would appear that among those close to the president are at least two factions offering different answers on the question of the how relations with Primakov and Fatherland-All Russia should be developed, or, in other words, on the question of the how to unite the party of power and the future nature of relations between the executive and the legislature. Putin has said on a number of occasions that reports of his conflict with Primakov are unfounded. He has stressed that there is “no opposition” between them. “OVR has its own tactics and strategies, but Primakov personally has never resorted to attacking me, and I do not propose to do so either.” Meanwhile, one section of Yeltsin’s administration has a different perspective on this, drawing a parallel between OVR and the KPRF and pointing out that these political organizations are “armed with the same weapon” and “propose the same methods of government;” that there is no ideological difference between them, they just use different rhetoric; that they advocate “the redistribution of power and property, and a complete reshaping of what is now termed the governing elite, both on a federal and regional level.”
If this antagonistic concept of political relations predominates, the State Duma and the presidential and government structures will once again engage in a battle for the redistribution of powers. But this was possible during the socioeconomic transformation of the Russian Federation, when support for parliament in society was low, and the main function of the State Duma was to channel social discontent and provide an “outlet” for social aggression.
It would appear that after the parliamentary elections, a number of factors will have some influence on the development of political processes in Russia.
First, the refusal of the embassies of a number of leading Western countries to grant entry visas to certain well-known Russian politicians and businessmen. By doing this, the West, regardless of the reasons prompting the embassies to refuse visa applications, “pushes” these political figures into the struggle for power within Russia. Tension automatically increases, and the election campaign becomes more aggressive.
Second, the unity of the party of power depends on the existence of a political enemy capable of removing it from power. The only force, even hypothetically, which could lay claim to such a position is the KPRF, particularly given that anticommunism may become not just the only unifying factor for the party of power, but a life-belt for politicians who hope to transform themselves from economic criminals into political emigres, campaigners against the “restoration of communism” in Russia.
Third, internal inconsistency. This is a factor, in the first place, among representatives of the party of power: Primakov projects himself as a symbol of stability, confidence and strength, but one of the cornerstones of his election strategy is his promise to change Russia’s existing system of power and property; meanwhile Putin, whose name is linked with activating the Russian state, is attempting to rely on the current property owners, regardless of the ways and means by which they came upon their fortunes, and rejects the modernization of the current political system. Inconsistency is also apparent in the understanding of how political parties, their leaders and the elites as a whole interact with the electorate. On the one hand, there is a fairly widespread view that the elites control their electorates. On the other hand, there is the view that there is a gulf between parties, politicians and the public, who are brought together only by temporary, situational links formed on the eve of election campaigns. These pre-election bonds are not sufficiently durable; they may be broken, and voters may turn to a different politician.
Fourth, the antiterrorist operation in Chechnya has consolidated the views of both the Russian political elite and most of the population, over 60 percent of whom approve of the use of force against the guerrillas. Prior to the Duma elections, politicians are reluctant to draw Russians’ attention to the negative consequences of the military action in Chechnya, for fear of losing support among their voters. But after December, it is quite possible that the “Chechen factor” will be used in the presidential election campaign. It is no coincidence that Grigory Yavlinsky has already begun to put forward a tentative plan for a halt to military action, splitting the united front of federal politicians in the fight against extremist and terrorist units.
The most likely outcome of the December parliamentary elections is the formation of deputy factions within the State Duma which will become the base for the presidential candidates. The eventual size of each of these factions will not be of great significance for the presidential election campaign (half the seats in the Duma go to deputies who triumph in the single-mandate constituencies, some of whom will join one faction or another. The possibility of deputies ostensibly from one party “overflowing” into another faction cannot be ruled out either–it is no coincidence that eight parliamentary factions and deputy groups were formed in the lower house in 1995, despite the fact that only four parties and movements surpassed the 5 percent barrier on the federal lists). During the elections a “measure” of popularity will be taken of those political figures who possess characteristic features and are symbolic politicians for the Russian electorate. The main candidates for the post of president will begin their election campaign from these parliamentary markers, having established the political preferences of Russia’s voters. Each candidate has linked his name to a particular party: Putin and Unity; Primakov and OVR; Zyuganov and the KPRF; Yavlinsky and Yabloko; Zhirinovsky and the LDPR.
The elections to the State Duma have the most significance for the party of power. It is the elections which represent the hopes of the Kremlin and the White House for overcoming the split in the ranks of the party of power, which should make it easier to rally the political, financial and media resources around one candidate.
However, it seems unlikely that the cracks in the ruling federal and regional elites can be “papered over” by force. Moreover, a decision by Primakov not to participate in the presidential campaign may have the effect of encouraging the appearance of new candidates for the highest post in the land. For the support secured in the election by Unity, with its endorsement by the current prime minister, is unlikely to be significant enough to prove that Putin enjoys a dominant position among Russian voters.
Vladimir Alekseevich Mironov is a senior fellow of the Institute of International Economic and Political Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.