Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 50

On March 2, Russia’s newest “party of power”–United Russia–held a string of founding conferences in regional capitals across Russia. United Russia has been formed by merging the pro-presidential Unity with Yury Luzhkov’s Fatherland and Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev’s All-Russia movement. The purpose of holding simultaneous regional conferences was to impress the outside world with the party’s unity and discipline. The reality was the simultaneous eruption of a series of conflicts among regional leaders that highlighted not only the party’s essential lack of cohesion but also the failure of the party’s top leaders to grasp what is really going on in the provinces (Russian agencies, March 4-6).

The noisiest scandal occurred in Chelyabinsk Oblast. There, the leaders of the regional branches of Unity, Fatherland and All Russia have appealed to United Russia’s national leadership to declare the conference illegitimate. They say that the conference was convened in violation not only of the party’s charter but even of Russian law. Members of the oblast party organization were not informed about changes in the time and venue of the conference, and some members were deliberately excluded from the list of delegates. As a result, there was not a quorum. The appeal was signed by, among others, Vladimir Dyatlov, deputy governor of Chelyabinsk Oblast and leader of the local branch of Unity. “Instead of the merger of Unity, Fatherland and All Russia in the southern Urals,” it reads, “what emerged was a new party force, which from the very beginning displayed its open opposition to the oblast administration.” What seems to have occurred was a conflict between local groups of Afghan war veterans and the oblast leadership, between whom there is an ongoing feud. A representative of the “Afghantsy” who was responsible for organizing the conference saw to it that Dyatlov was excluded from the regional council of the new party. United Russia’s national leadership responded on March 4 by declaring the Chelyabinsk conference null and void (Regions.ru, March 4-5; Chelyabinsky Rabochy, March 5).

Things were little better in Lipetsk Oblast. There too the person favored by the national leadership to head the regional chapter–Yevgeny Syrov, director of a Lipetsk construction company–failed to win election even to the regional political council. Sergei Gaidarzhi, leader of Unity’s faction in the State Duma who attended the Lipetsk conference, said that the ballots would be sent to the central party apparatus for examination and a ruling on whether the founding conference was valid. At the time of writing, “the Lipetsk question” remains unresolved (Regions.ru, March 4; Gazeta, March 6).

The Chelyabinsk scenario was repeated in Saratov Oblast. Delegates to that conference have also appealed to United Russia’s national leadership, accusing the conference organizers of excluding two of the leaders of Unity’s local branch–Saratov’s Deputy Mayor Konstantin Ionov and the chairman of the oblast Public Chamber, Sergei Naumov–from the conference. Some twenty delegates walked out of the conference hall in protest. Saratov Governor Dmitry Ayatskov, who was present in his capacity as a member of United Russia’s regional council, immediately proposed that those who had walked out should be expelled from the party. According to some sources, the decision to exclude Naumov and Ionov from United Russia was taken in Moscow, and may have been connected with their ongoing criticism of the activities of the leader of the Saratov branch of Fatherland. In any case, the walk-out was ignored by the national leadership. There are rumors in Saratov that a branch of Unity may be re-established at city level as an alternative to United Russia (Volga Information Agency, Rosbalt.ru, March 4).

Conflicts attended the formation of United Russia in other regions–including Altai and Khabarovsk Krais, Orel Oblast and the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. The party’s position is tough: If a branch of United Russia refuses to obey the national leadership, it will be expelled (Gazeta, March 6). United Russia hopes in this way to eliminate “gubernatorial license and parochialism” and prevent the takeover of regional party branches by local bosses (VremyaMN, March 6). This tactic does not appear very promising, since it presupposes that the party will withdraw from any region in which it is unable to assert complete control. As the experience of March 2 suggests, there are a number of such regions. Nor is it clear that the party will be able to realize its aim of integrating representatives of the gubernatorial teams into the party’s regional leadership. The arguments that erupted at the founding conferences suggest the kind of difficulties that lie ahead.