Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 2 Issue: 5

by Ilya Malyakin

This December, Russia sees the next round of State Duma elections. The “highlight” of this political season takes place in a context of events that is less momentous than that which surrounded the elections of 1999, but which nonetheless is in some ways more interesting.

Russia’s regions are about to switch to a mixed electoral system. Previously, most regional assemblies were made up of deputies elected from single-mandate constituencies. But under a June 2002 federal law, half of the deputies will soon be elected from party lists, as in Russia’s State Duma. This could result in a radical transformation of party structures, and their metamorphosis from the poor relations within Russia’s political system into fully-fledged “family members” capable of shaping the country’s political climate.

When these strengthened party groupings invade the political “market,” which in Russia has already been carved up by the federal and regional elites, they will inevitably disrupt existing relationships and patterns of activity. To date, the strength of a politician has been determined only by his ability to exploit the notorious “administrative resources” (actions outside the bounds of the law, such as diverting state funds to publicity campaigns and influencing courts and election officials to block rival candidates). But now Russia is beginning to see more “civilized” political values assume greater importance. If so, the days of allocating seats in regional parliaments administratively–a practice that permitted the executive power to turn these bodies into compliant voting machines–may be numbered. That is, of course, unless the old elite groupings can find some weapon capable of stifling the looming “party revolution.”

The possibility of such a “counter-revolution” is actually very real. First, in carrying out the reform, the Kremlin has no intention of letting control of the State Duma pass to any party structures. On the contrary, its representatives say that they mean to strengthen the hold of the presidential administration over the Duma. Second, the most important task facing the Kremlin remains the creation of an instrument that not merely extends the influence of the federal center in the regions, but that can destroy the governors’ monopoly of power. This power is still almost absolute, despite the countless measures that Putin’s team has taken since May 2002 to weaken it. In fact, it was probably the conjunction of these two problems that led to the birth of the project known as the “United Russia Party.”

United Russia, for all its claims to being new and different, is in many ways the successor to earlier “parties of power”–that is, Russia’s Choice in 1993, Our Home is Russia (NDR) in 1995, and Unity in 1999. Each of these declared itself to be the “party of power,” although this status was never formally acknowledged by the head of state. This omission condemned these parties to a curious dual existence. On the one hand, they were supposed to serve the interests of the “Power” (vlast) and support its initiatives. At the same time, the Kremlin was left free to disavow this essentially foundationless alliance. The Kremlin was likewise free to find new political vehicles, as happened with both the first and second incarnations of the “party of power.”

Yet there are some significant differences between United Russia and its predecessors. First, it has established a large faction in the Duma capable of exerting significant control over the legislature. Second, as the direct heir to the 1999 Unity Party, it is the first “party of power” to have real prospects of a second consecutive electoral victory. Third, United Russia has established an unprecedentedly large party structure in the regions, one which is now tasked with gaining control over the regional assemblies.

Analysis of the reform of Russia’s electoral and party legislation in terms of its ability to ensure the success of United Russia shows that there is still much to be done, however. The Kremlin has largely failed in its efforts to weaken the governors’ power by means of external attacks. It has therefore switched to a strategy of trying to undermine their power from below, and it may now try to use regional legislative assemblies as a base from which to launch these “demolition operations.” To achieve this by fighting for seats in the first-past-the-post races would be an impossible task: regional elites control all the relevant “administrative resources” and could easily defeat the “federals” in such races. But the central authorities have much more leverage in elections between candidates nominated by national parties and run according to proportional representation rules.

This is the reason for the change in electoral rules, including the stipulation that only all-Russian parties can nominate candidates in regional elections. This change has deprived the governors of the opportunity to create their own mini “parties of power” to play off against federal rivals in their local elections.

But this change left two additional problems. First, Unity, which had successfully played the role of a federal “party of power” in 1999, faced a vigorous opponent in the Fatherland-All Russia movement (OVR). It had been created by the regional elites to defend their own interests and constituted a strong faction in parliament, one that was more than capable of duplicating its success in the regional elections. However, it proved relatively easy to persuade the regional leaders of both parties to accept the idea of unification, and thus United Russia was born.

The second problem arose in the subsequent need to ensure that the governors did not seize control of the new party’s regional structures. So the new party had to be armed with an extremely strict charter, one that allowed the federal party leadership effectively to appoint the heads of the regional branches. Naturally, the regions retained the right to put forward their own candidates, but the “federals” could veto independently elected leaders and, in the event of further insubordination, suspend the activities of any “rebel” organization. In several such instances (in Chelyabinsk, Lipetsk and Orel Oblasts, and Khabarovsk Krai), United Russia’s federal leaders made the seriousness of their intentions quite clear by fighting off blatant attempts by the regional elites to wrest control from them.

However, although it guaranteed success on an organizational level, this tactic bore within it the seeds of future problems–and much more intractable ones at that. And once again, the threat is coming from the regions. Indeed, the successfully absorbed OVR could now become a “Trojan horse,” one capable of destroying Kremlin plans to take control of the “party continuum.”

The fact is that United Russia is not identical to Unity. Unity presented itself as a classic “dark horse” in that voters did not know what to expect of the organization. It had no well known politicians or intellectuals among its leadership, and, by choosing to compete for the title of “party of power” with both NDR and OVR, it did not play by the usual rules of the game. As a result, Unity managed to attract not only the “party of power” electorate, but also some voters from both the left and liberal wings of the spectrum.

But there is no such uncertainty today. United Russia itself has seen to that by swallowing up OVR, the “party of power” in its regional form. The integration with OVR has also exposed the weakness of the old Unity party, especially its lack of defining leaders and intellectual ballast. Unlike Unity, which was hastily assembled just before the elections, OVR was carefully crafted over an extended time period, equipping itself with the best managers from among the regional elites. Despite finding themselves in secondary roles, these people have easily become the unofficial leaders of the new United Russia. The sole card which the Unity faction can play to counter this trend is the image of President Vladimir Putin, even though he remains uncommitted to them.

In essence, United Russia has a choice. It can either purge its ranks, irrespective of the losses, and carry on as the “Kremlin’s party of power,” thereby losing some administrative support in the provinces. Or it can follow the more familiar pattern of an inclusive “overall party of power,” whose center of gravity is rooted in regional elites. The second option is all the more alluring, given the presence of former OVR members within the leadership of every regional United Russia organization.

The risks for United Russia of choosing the Kremlin option (that is, making an “anti-governor” choice) were revealed in Sverdlovsk Oblast. After Eduard Rossel, the local governor and one of Russia’s most prominent regional politicians, lost control over the local branch of United Russia, his “For a United Urals” bloc routed United Russia candidates in the oblast Duma elections.

In Saratov Oblast, United Russia chose a different approach. In the fall of 2002, Governor Dmitry Ayatskov, well known for his rigid authoritarianism, reached an agreement with his main rival, former deputy governor Vyacheslav Volodin, who is currently leader of the OVR faction in the State Duma. Their pact allowed the formation in the oblast duma of a powerful and energetic United Russia faction, one which is nevertheless on good terms with the governor and has caused him no more than token difficulties. Although Ayatskov himself plays a minor role in the local United Russia organization, it is headed by one of the ministers from his oblast government.

These are not isolated examples. It is enough to remember that Unity and United Russia have repeatedly come out in support of various candidates in gubernatorial elections, but that, as a rule, their position has failed to influence the outcome of the vote. The only success that the party has managed to chalk up was in Smolensk Oblast, where the man they supported, local Federal Security Service chief Viktor Maslov, defeated the former governor, Aleksandr Prokhorov.

To judge from the results of the United Russia project so far, its creators have not shaken off the Kremlin’s traditional delusions, and are still striving to restore the situation that existed in the USSR, when real politics did not exist in the regions. Life has removed this possibility, however. Regional politics have become a tangled mass of contradictions, and events in each of the subjects of the federation correspond only partly to the situation in the federal political arena. Though it is no longer feasible to govern the provinces from Moscow, federal strategists remain resistant to recognizing this new reality. Instead, they keep trying to make the provinces adapt to their own ambitions–and for some reason fail repeatedly to learn from the dismal results.

The United Russia project can be seen as one of the most brilliant–but also one of the most ill-fated–attempts of this kind. Perhaps the party can still manage to repeat (though probably not surpass) its success in the parliamentary elections. But it is already close to losing the regions. Or rather, the regional elites have almost won over United Russia. Paradoxically, they may be able to use it in the forthcoming mixed elections as a tool to help consolidate their own power.

Ilya Malyakin founded the Volga Information Agency in 1991 and remains its chief editor to this day. He is also an independent regional expert with the Moscow-based International Institute for Humanitarian and Political Studies.