United Russia’s Poor Performance Shows Its Precarious Position in the North Caucasus

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 13 Issue: 24

On November 28, the opposition Patrioty Rossii (Patriots of Russia) party’s faction in the North Ossetian parliament walked out of a parliamentary session to protest United Russia’s unwillingness to cooperate with the opposition. Earlier, the republican parliament had decided that a joint commission would distribute committee seats among the parties represented in the legislature, but the decision was subsequently shirked by United Russia (https://region15.ru/articles/3604/).

While conflicts in parliaments are ordinary events in many countries, they are highly unusual in North Ossetia, where political life has practically come to a standstill in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Out of the 70 deputies in the republican parliament, 45 are from United Russia, 14 are from Patrioty Rossii, five each are from the Communist and Just Russia parties, and one is an independent candidate. On October 14, when local and regional elections were held across Russia, North Ossetia was the only region where United Russia received less than 50 percent of the vote (44.2 percent) in any type of election. Patrioty Rossii came in second in North Ossetia, with almost 27 percent. United Russia’s sudden reversal of fortune in North Ossetia occurred not because the voters became enamored with the obscure Patrioty Rossii, but rather because a popular public figure and politician, Arsen Fadzaev, left United Russia last summer to join Patrioty Rossii (https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2065585). The election results also showed how frustrated voters are with United Russia in one of the calmest republics in the North Caucasus. One can only imagine how disillusioned people are with the ruling party elsewhere in the region.

In the highly personalized politics of Russia in general and North Ossetia in particular, the personalities of those who lead the parties in elections are decisive. The setback United Russia received in North Ossetia is even more significant given that electoral fraud was still a factor. It is the conflict within elites that attributed to the partial breakdown of the bureaucratic electoral fraud machine. Patrioty Rossii claimed that in the initial stages of ballot counting, the party led with 60 percent and United Russia had only 15 percent, and that the latter won the election only because of massive cheating. As the conflict within the ruling elites in Moscow intensifies, the regions are also feeling its reverberations. When the central body of United Russia tried to criticize the North Ossetian leadership for poor performance in the elections, the latter irately replied that it would handle its domestic matters on its own (https://osradio.ru/vybory/53818-obrashhenie-severo-osetinskogo-regionalnogo.html). The unexpected failure of United Russia in North Ossetia indicated that the political situation is very unstable, and even very limited political competition can easily lead to the toppling of the ruling party.

Moreover, in the North Ossetian case, the conflict between United Russia and Patrioty Rossii has ethnic overtones. The leader of the opposition, Arsen Fadzaev, a former renowned wrestler, belongs to the Ossetian subgroup called the Digor, who reside in the western part of North Ossetia. The current leader of North Ossetia, Taimuraz Mamsurov, belongs to the Iron, the majority Ossetian subgroup, whose members occupy the rest of the republic. Although both political camps have people from both subgroups on their teams, Fadzaev did much better in the elections in western North Ossetia, where the Digors live, than in other parts of the republic. Coincidentally or not, the Digor have not held the position of head of the republic since 1981—more than 30 years ago—something that may be a source of frustration.

Russia’s electoral laws were modestly liberalized after the December 2011 protests in Moscow, which followed what activists claimed to be fraudulent parliamentary elections. As a result, regional legislatures acquired a much more prominent role in the king-making process. The change immediately had an effect on parliamentary elections in North Ossetia and is likely to have follow-up effects in the republic, as well as in other regions of the North Caucasus with the exception of Chechnya, which has a quasi-dictatorial regime.

The salience of the administrative boundaries in the North Caucasus was reconfirmed when the North Ossetian government tacitly ruled out setting up a joint police checkpoint on the administrative border with Ingushetia. On October 23, a suicide bomber who came from the Ingush side of that border blew himself up near a North Ossetian checkpoint near the village of Chermen, killing one police officer and wounding several others. Following the incident, the head of Ingushetia, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, held a government meeting during which he announced that a joint Ossetian-Ingush police checkpoint was needed at the border between the two republics to avoid incidents. The head of North Ossetia, Taimuraz Mamsurov, said in an interview with Russian radio that he was in favor of removing the police checkpoints altogether, and in practice there is no desire on the North Ossetian side to set up a joint checkpoint with their Ingush counterparts due to the ongoing tensions between the two republics (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/216763/). It is worth noting that the checkpoint between North Ossetia and Kabardino-Balkaria was merged years ago and has functioned without significant issues ever since.

Surprising signs of political life sprang up in North Ossetia immediately after the loosened electoral laws were passed. This shows that there is a demand for democratic deliberations in the republics of the North Caucasus and, arguably, elsewhere in Russia. It appears that the ruling United Russia party will be defeated as soon as a semblance of political competition is allowed.