Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 9

By Mikhail Zherebyatev

One novel aspect of the 1999 electoral season in Russia is the absence of a “power” party or parties formed especially for the State Duma elections and approved by the head of state (such as those which described themselves thus at the previous State Duma elections in 1993 and 1995). President Boris Yeltsin confirmed this in his annual address to the Federal Assembly. Touching on the forthcoming parliamentary elections, the president stressed equal conditions for all political organizations: There would be no “favored” parties, and the elections would take place with no “power party.” In both 1993 and 1995, there were two of these–the main party (the “locomotive”) and a “second string.” In 1993, these roles were assumed by Russia’s Choice and Sergei Shakhrai’s Party of Russian Unity and Concord, which were formed in line with the election results for the First (Fifth) Duma. In 1995, the parties involved were Russia is Our Home (ROH)–led by then Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, which was designated a “center-right association”–and the center-left Ivan Rybkin bloc–Rybkin being the speaker of the First (Fifth) Duma, which subsequently failed to break through the 5-percent barrier. It is also of interest that in both 1993 and 1995 the “locomotive” parties were burdened with more ideology than their second strings, though the leaders of the second-string parties (Shakhrai and Rybkin) clearly had their chances with regard to the ideological formation of their movements. Both men express their own political ambitions in an ideological rather than an individually charismatic way.

The fact that the presidential structures are not planning to use a “power party” as a tool to control the election results means that the role of regional elites in the electoral process will be strengthened–particularly that of regional leaders, the senators, because of the common interests of those who are forming an informal “power party,” a party of the regions.[2] Here the issue of economic differences between regions takes second place. In its turn, the trend towards a strengthening of the role of regional elites in the electoral process clashes with another trend which appeared last year when Russia saw its fourth change of prime minister [3]. That trend: the drift of the state political structure towards strengthening the powers of parliament and its lower house (the State Duma), which should result sooner or later in the creation of a government based on a parliamentary–party (!)–majority. Thus the Kremlin, that is, the president’s administration, is trying to use the regional elites to prevent the establishment of a presidential-parliamentary republic or, if worst comes to worst, to limit the influence of the party factor between January and July 2000, which will see the end of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency.

Thus, on the eve of the elections to the State Duma, the parties aspiring to the role of nationwide corporate groups of professional politicians are weak regional elites (an informal party of the regions). The interests of these elites in the State Duma–which, given the current role of the lower house in the political process, drafts legislation for a host of poorly interconnected executive bodies–go no further than lobbying for industries and territories. However, from the point of view of the opportunity for expressing political and politico-economic interests (both potential and real), the Russian provinces as they stand today amount to much more than just the regional leaders and the economic structures under their direct control. The bankruptcy of most of the current regional executive leaders–who have failed in their term of office to curb the economic crisis in the territories under their jurisdiction–is boosting the political activity of their various opponents: regional legislators (deputies of legislative bodies and particularly senators who lead representative bodies); representatives of the municipal authorities of republic, krai and oblast capitals; organized groups with capital obtained from benefits (veterans’ organizations of the Afghan and Chechen campaigns, sports associations and so on) [4]; the surviving remnants of former political parties and movements, such as ROH or the Congress of Russian Communities (KRO) [5], which is now led by the active young Duma deputy Dmitri Rogozin, a supporter of right-wing patriotic ideology.

State Duma seats gained from party lists are clearly a sign of success, but a party which manages to get a significant number of its candidates elected in single mandate constituencies alongside those from party lists is in a much more advantageous position. Prominent figures are required to achieve this, preferably from the provinces. (Political scientists say that the average Russian voter has more trust in “local” people). Nobody doubts that such a scenario is possible for the Moscow mayor’s party. However, in the history of party-building in post-Soviet Russia there has never been so much discord surrounding the formation of any political organization as there has been with Fatherland. In places where the formation of the mayor’s party was not initiated by the regional executive authority, as it was, for example, in Yaroslavl and Novosibirsk Oblasts, it is characterized by open rivalry between different groups. This has been manifested in the parallel registration of several organizations on a regional level (Primorsky krai, Kursk Oblast) or town level (Belgorod). The rivals appeal to the Fatherland leadership, grimly asserting their right to sole representation of the organization at the corresponding level (region or town).

In some places one group did manage to seize the initiative in the early stages–and then only because the other turned out to be incapable of further action. This is what happened, for example, in Voronezh, where the organization was formed and headed by the State Duma deputy Dmitri Rogozin [6] who is determined to become one of the new party’s key figures. His opponent–a regional leader who was secretly planning inaugural events–lost without even managing to make a proper announcement about the organization he was creating. In December, the nationwide inaugural congress of the organization urged its local structures–in those instances in which there were two–to agree amongst themselves independently. The coordinating body, the Central Council, tried to settle one such conflict–in Primorsky krai–by sending representatives of the Fatherland leadership. Nothing came of it. The situation remained as it had been before the Central Council intervened.

Rivalry between parallel organizations continues to this day, despite the fact that local organizations began to establish themselves in November 1998. In Lipetsk, a public official–the head of the oblast administration office for voluntary organizations–even acted as arbiter. The leadership battle in regional and local organizations (at town or regional capital level) is clearly holding up preparations for the elections and handing ammunition to opponents of Fatherland. The lack of practical tasks–the active campaign has yet to begin–forces Luzhkov’s supporters to seek ways of turning any mention of the organization to their favor. The catalyst is usually some uncomplimentary or skeptical review of the prospects of the Moscow mayor’s party. In February, the Voronezh branch of Fatherland launched a campaign in the press against the State Duma speaker Gennady Seleznev, who had been “careless” enough during his visit to Voronezh to dub Fatherland just another “power party,” a party of bureaucrats, and to describe Luzhkov as “more frightening than Yeltsin.” The local branch of Fatherland responded quite sharply to the Duma leader’s comments, along the lines of: Where are these bureaucrats that you–a politician with no future, in a bankrupt party–claim to have seen in our ranks (specifically in the Voronezh branch)?

After the skirmish between Rogozin and Seleznev on the pages of a provincial publication (the newspaper “Molodoi kommunar” in Voronezh), the Central Council issued a directive–in the style of the KPSU or ROH–to promote Fatherland by means of a political advertisement aimed at prominent industrialists or public figures who want to be involved with the organization. The deeds of one such successful figure–Yuri Luzhkov–were apparently not enough. What Fatherland is doing is no coincidence. In the absence of a single clear directive from the regional executive authorities with regard to the new party, all potential political players declared themselves members of Fatherland. Each of them has their chance, for Yuri Luzhkov is one of the three politicians most frequently mentioned as being capable of winning the elections in 2000.

With the great social mix in Fatherland, the organization is faced with an almost impossible task in mobilizing groups with such different interests. Given this state of affairs, Luzhkov’s party has to take six courses of action. It has to interact with the banking and economic structures represented in the regions; with the executive bodies of republics, krais, oblasts and okrugs and the regional economic structures attached to them; with the legislative bodies of subjects of the federation; with municipal authorities which have their own economic infrastructure; with representatives of “benefit capital;” and, lastly, with their own political partner organizations. This is an absurd situation. From the standpoint of Yuri Luzhkov and his team in Moscow, strategic priority should be given to an alliance with the regional executive bodies under the slogan of economic cooperation between the capital and the provinces. The election campaign has some chance of success with financial intervention in provincial projects from large financial-industrial groups concentrated in the capital. Some of these funds will certainly be put towards the elections. It is hard to agree with columnist P. Akopov (“An old house for the new Fatherland,” Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 10, 1999), who has prematurely declared the governors and republic presidents to be opponents of the Moscow mayor. In his opinion, the governors are certain to launch a campaign against Luzhkov. But the reverse is more likely: The overall majority of territories need investment support which the capital can promise and can even provide. It is highly indicative, for example, that the Novgorod region, which has successfully established itself as an attractive region for investment, is in no hurry to join Fatherland (which is practically invisible in Novgorod Oblast). The sooner the parallel structures of Luzhkov’s party come to terms with the loss of their indeterminate status (as sole but not entirely legitimate bearers of the truth), the sooner the regional authorities will come to an agreement with Luzhkov. Disputes in the provincial Luzhkov camp can only be resolved locally, for the sake of economic expediency. Only then will the interests of the various groups of provincials who have declared that they belong to Luzhkov’s party be taken into consideration in some way or another.[7]

Essentially Luzhkov is already working according to the plan described above. He is seeking support from governors who are either linked to him personally or are interested in implementing investment projects with Moscow’s help. It is probably for this reason that Fatherland’s first regional conference took place in St. Petersburg, whose governor had Luzhkov’s support during his election campaign. And prior to this, Luzhkov visited Tambov, offering the local communist governor economic cooperation which would be attractive for the region.

Despite the sarcastic comments of journalists and analysts about creating a party with no program, Fatherland does have an ideology. It is an openly economic one. It is an idea of wealth which is accessible and comprehensible to pretty much the whole of society. Such an ideology is naturally much stronger than that of the new “party of the regions” which Samara governor Konstantin Titov has undertaken to create. The regional ideology is probably comprehensible only to the small circle of professionals who designed it. Basically what is happening with regard to the ideological formation of new parties is remarkably reminiscent of the situation with the two “power parties”–the locomotive and the second string–in 1993 and 1995. Luzhkov’s strategy of interaction with regional executive leaders suggests the same scenario. Thus the political tradition of a “power party,” established during previous elections to the State Duma, is reproducing itself in the face of clear opposition from the president.


(1) The date of the president’s address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation. (2) Until the formation of the Federation Council of regional leaders (1994-95) Sergei Shakhrai’s party aspired to the role of “party of the regions.” For the forthcoming Duma elections Samara governor Konstantin Titov is attempting to revive the idea of a party of the regions (Russia’s Voice). (3) Viktor Chernomyrdin, Sergei Kirienko, Chernomyrdin again and Yevgeny Primakov. (4) The commercial activity of these organizations was based on benefits laid down by the state for the given sectors of the population. (5) One of the three leaders on the Congress of Russian Communities’ list for the 1995 State Duma elections was General Aleksandr Lebed, now governor of Krasnoyarsk krai. (6) Dmitri Rogozin lives in Moscow and is the elected deputy for an okrug in Voronezh Oblast. Rogozin’s team is currently collecting signatures for his nomination as a candidate in the elections for governor of Belgorod oblast. Early elections will be held on May 30 on the initiative of the current governor Savchenko. (7) In Russian politics the phenomenon of individuals gaining entry to power structures by regularly taking part in election campaigns is widespread.

Mikhail Zherebyatev is a specialist with the International Institute for Humanitarian and Political Research in Moscow and a regular contributor to various publications, including the weeklies “Itogi” and “Russkaya mysl.”