Publication: Prism Volume: 7 Issue: 6

By Aleksandr Tsipko

The question: Why does Putin need Fatherland and Unity to unite? Some answers are both obvious and easy enough to cite. Vladimir Putin’s characteristic passion for making things ordered and hierarchical can once again be seen here. The Russian president has a penchant for clear and coherent systems. His dream of creating a two- or three-party system cannot be achieved without forming a powerful political center. This is essential for consolidating the country around the new authorities, and for resolving the issue of national consensus. Such a powerful centrist party could simultaneously counter both the extremes of the communist left and the extremes of liberal radicalism. Logically, the new center should lie between the left-wing Communist Party (KPRF) and the right-wing SPS. This sort of arrangement of parties would indeed reflect the principal alternatives for Russia’s political development and create free and fair conditions for the political forces.

What also comes through is the fact that unlike Yeltsin, Putin is not afraid to identify himself with a pro-Kremlin party of power, and openly declares his affiliation to Russian centrism, which reconciles liberal and patriotic values. This centrism is Russian by nature and a product of Russia, for only in our country are liberal and patriotic ideas at odds with each other. In all the countries of Eastern Europe (and most clearly in Poland and Hungary) the struggle for freedom was closely linked to the struggle for national sovereignty and the rebirth of the sovereign state. But in Russia the democratic movements, representing liberal values, spoke out against traditional Russian statehood and against the “empire.”

This is why the democratic revolution of August 1991 brought about the disintegration of the Soviet Union as the historical continuation of Russia. At the same time our patriots of both Left and Right spoke out bitterly against the liberal reforms, claiming that democracy would result in the death of the state. Behind this battle between Russia’s communists and liberals, which led to the bloodshed of October 1993, lay the traditional animosity between Slavophiles and Westernists which had already lasted for over 100 years.

The first political organization in Russia to acknowledge this philosophical reason for Russia’s political schism, and to advocate at last combining the natural need for freedom with the equally natural love for one’s country, was Luzhkov’s Fatherland. This movement emerged in early 1999, when both nationalist and liberal radicalism finally gave up the ghost, when society yearned for stability and normalcy, and when it became clear to everyone–even the liberal intelligentsia–that without an independent state and strong and effective power, it was impossible to carry through reforms and ensure the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual. In assessing the president’s recent initiative to merge Unity and Fatherland, it should be remembered that when he was still prime minister he espoused these self-same ideas of liberal patriotism. In his first article setting out his world view (“Russia at the turn of the century,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta, December 12, 1999), Putin wrote about his dedication to the values of patriotism, statism and justice, and about how our main task was to incorporate the reforms taking place in the country into the context of national traditions. But the astonishing thing was that at the time Fatherland was unable to work out its attitude to Putin as a presidential candidate who was effectively voicing its political program. The fact was that Fatherland was created before Putin came onto the political scene, when the provincial elite and “great-power” liberals were putting their money on Primakov.

Another interesting fact is that Unity, which appeared in the autumn of 1999 as a pro-Kremlin party, and which was Fatherland’s main opponent in the 1999 parliamentary elections, also adopted as its cornerstone the philosophy of the Luzhkov party program. Several sections of Unity’s manifesto repeat almost word-for-word the corresponding sections of Fatherland’s manifesto. Things they have in common include a negative attitude to the radical market reforms of the early 1990s, opposition to communist revanchism, and adherence to the principles of gradualism and continuity. Finally, Putin, Fatherland and Unity all call for an appreciation of the fact that we can hope for an honorable future only on one condition: That we manage to tie in the universal principles of market economics with the realities of life in Russia, on the understanding that “Russia has had all it can take in the way of political and socioeconomic upheaval, cataclysm and radical change.”

Objectively, the idea of amalgamating Unity and Fatherland would seem to be constructive in every respect. This is a scenario whereby all sides–the Kremlin, Luzhkov’s party and the pro-Kremlin Unity–stand to gain from simple cooperation. Since the process of party-building is not happening from below, it has to be forced through from above. Because we have failed to create anything other than “manageable democracy,” we keep having to pull on the reigns of Russian politics. At the end of the day, consolidation around a party of the majority, regardless of how it is built, will be more solid and stable than the current consolidation around a “leader of our hopes.” The revolution is coming to an end, after all, and leader-oriented parties such as Yabloko need to be replaced by organizations of like-minded people who are united both by convictions and by a program of action.

It was obviously more advantageous for Putin to identify himself with a centrist party reconciling the values of patriotism and liberalism than with SPS, the party of the democratic clique of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Yeltsin took the young reformers under his wing for too long, and turned Gaidar’s Russia’s Democratic Choice into the party of power, and in so doing forfeited a great deal of authority in the eyes of the Russian public and the provincial elite. The simple fact is that liberal ideas and the policy of aping the West are very unpopular among ordinary voters, especially in the Russian provinces. For this reason even regional bureaucrats were obliged to support the communists for a long time. Essentially, both Fatherland and subsequently Unity were a form of protest at the old coalition between Yeltsin and the liberal elite.

Under these circumstances, it would not be politically expedient for Putin to move closer to SPS, particularly from an organizational point of view. Putin’s approval rating has already suffered from what is popularly perceived to be his closeness to the real leader of SPS, Anatoly Chubais. Many believe that the head of United Energy Systems can thank the president’s support for his recent political triumphs. But at the same time, Chubais, despite his new, patriotic rhetoric, is still a major turn-off to the public, and it is this circumstance which damages Putin. Even his most dedicated followers cannot understand why their hero supports the “hateful Chubais.” Even after their unifying congress, SPS’s chances of overcoming the 5 percent barrier in the next elections to the Duma are even lower than those of Yabloko. These elections will probably be held ahead of time: The slogan “A New Duma for the New President” is still popular in the president’s administration.

Bearing in mind this public feeling and the insuperable unpopularity of SPS, the common-sense approach for Putin would be to create a convenient political niche for himself in the form of a united centrist party. Such niches are those of “national liberalism” or “liberal patriotism,” which do have a chance of taking root in Russia.

Putin has no reason to doubt the loyalty of a new ruling party formed from an amalgamation of Unity and Fatherland. The patriotism of officialdom or the statism of bureaucrats, characteristic of both Unity and Fatherland, imply unconditional loyalty to the head of state. At the same time, this ideology is much closer to the people than the religion of human rights and an open economy espoused by SPS. Russian officialdom, for all its faults, has always been closer to the people in its way of life than our liberal intelligentsia. It is clear that Putin cannot consolidate Russia without a united Russian bureaucracy or a united regional officialdom.

The fact that Fatherland and Unity both developed out of harsh criticism of the deeds of the liberals–the collapse of the Soviet Union and shock market reforms–also benefits Putin. Together, Fatherland and Unity can simultaneously perform the functions of ruling party and people’s party, for they have both adopted national traditions and stood up for a revival of a strong state and for Russia as a world power. SPS, which spoke out against “statism” in its manifesto, only helped to reinforce Unity and Fatherland in the political center in Russia.

Thus the merger of Fatherland and Unity is useful first and foremost in establishing transparency in political relations and in the ideological delineation of Russia’s main parties. It makes sense for organizations which advocate the same ideas to merge; it makes sense for the president, as leader of the country, to align himself with a party which reflects the main trends in the country’s ideological development. Putin, naturally, is also motivated by more down-to-earth aims. In order to take full control of the Duma, he needs a manageable centrist majority. This is not difficult to achieve if he unites Luzhkov’s OVR, Unity, and also the Regions of Russia and People’s Deputy factions under one banner. Such an alliance would give Putin a solid parliamentary majority–about 260 members of parliament–which would presumably support all his legislative initiatives. With the new alignment of political forces in the country, there would no longer be the need for early elections to the Duma. The new president would indeed secure a new Duma as a result of the unification of Fatherland and Unity.

It is possible that Putin is amalgamating Fatherland and Unity with a view to what he will do after 2008–that is, after he must by law relinquish the presidency. There is no doubt that Putin will be reelected in 2004, assuming he is still alive and that nothing totally extraordinary happens in Russia. Putin has the opportunity to leave himself the option of leading a powerful centrist party after he steps down. Then he can run the country through his party, which will presumably put forward its own candidate for president and form the government. However, this plan can only be realized if Putin transforms what is a highly presidential republic into a parliamentary one before 2008, and if we can make the transition from the practice of electing the president by universal suffrage to that of his selection by the Federal Assembly. Such a development cannot be ruled out.

However, what is in theory beneficial to the president, Unity, Fatherland and the country as a whole will only bring dividends in practice if all the protagonists in the putative alliance are true to the responsibilities they take on. An amalgamation of Fatherland and Unity only makes sense as a party of power if the president actually implements their common program–the ideas of liberal patriotism. I draw attention to this, because the plan to merge Unity and Fatherland does not fit very well with Putin’s new liberal course which he unveiled in his state of the nation address in April. It is impossible to ignore the fact that in his address Putin actually adopted the SPS position on every contentious issue: The results of privatization, the free sale of land, the fate of the natural monopolies, and currency control. The reform of housing and utilities and the natural monopolies (first and foremost UES and Gazprom), planned for the near future, also form part of the program of Russia’s liberals.

Neither can it be ignored that in reality SPS still remains the party of power today; that very same Gaidar team is formulating the economic policy of Putin’s government, just as it once did for Yeltsin’s government. There is simply no other team in Russia yet. The key positions in Putin’s government are occupied by Aleksei Kudrin and German Gref, who are linked to SPS not only ideologically, but organizationally too. As finance minister, Aleksei Kudrin has for the last few years been financing, both overtly and covertly, all the liberals’ election campaigns. Nor should it be forgotten that as vice-premier and finance minister Kudrin was and still remains the main ally of the effective head of SPS, Anatoly Chubais. At any rate, there are strong grounds for asserting that the liberals in Putin’s entourage today are stronger than all the other groups on which the president relies–stronger even than the group of Petersburg KGB men.

At the same time, it is plain to see that Luzhkov, as head of the group coordinating the merger of Fatherland and Unity, has adopted an intransigent position with regard to Putin’s new liberal path. At the third congress of Russian commodity producers, held in Moscow on April 20 this year, Luzhkov called the government’s present liberal course “destructive.” He accused the government of deliberately stifling domestic production and doing nothing to protect the domestic market and domestic producers. Luzhkov was effectively saying that Putin’s desire to make Russia a member of the WTO as early as spring of next year is ill-thought-out, and that such a step would result in tens of thousands of businesses going under and the creation of millions of unemployed.

Herein lies the problem: Why does Putin need a powerful ruling party which does not support his new liberal path? Some more obscure questions and answers also arise here. The president’s liberal path can, with some effort, be reconciled with the sections on the economy in Unity’s manifesto. At any rate, Unity concedes that land should be brought onto the market. But Fatherland’s economic ideas are diametrically opposed to Putin’s new liberal policies. As the party of common sense, Fatherland’s position is that privatization should not be continued until an inventory has been made of all the national wealth which was transferred into private hands in recent years, and until the real economic returns from privatized property have been determined. The point here is not about plans for renationalization, but about a legally correct process. Fatherland advocates legally reestablishing state control over enterprises where privatization involved violations of the law. Fatherland is against the “forced imposition of private ownership of the land.” Instead of restructuring and thus continuing the privatization of the natural monopolies, to which Putin is now predisposed, Fatherland proposes retaining control of strategic branches of the economy and of the natural monopolies.

This is where the main problem arises in merging Fatherland and Unity, and creating a pro-Kremlin party and a pro-Kremlin faction in the Duma. How can a compromise be found between the political leadership of the new party of the centrist majority, and the current economic course favored by the president? The impression is that all those who enter the new party from the Unity benches will swear an oath of loyalty to Putin’s liberal path. This is related to the fact that, if truth be told, Unity does not contain many free-thinking people. But the situation in Fatherland is quite different. Its leaders crafted the party’s economic program themselves, and are hardly likely to renounce their fundamental principles. They have no reason to participate in a ruling party which will implement policies which go against their own convictions.

In my view it is possible to find a compromise between the approaches of Fatherland and Unity to the question of reforming the economy. Compromise is possible, because an analysis of the programs of the two parties reveals that they both adhere to the same philosophy of reform: No rushing, no fouling things up, putting the national interest first, ensuring a growth in wealth and supporting domestic producers. Their programs do indeed go against Putin’s intention to speed up the liberal reforms in Russia. Instead of Putin’s stated idea of taking the state out of the economy, Fatherland and Unity insist on the need to create “an integral system of state regulation of the economy and the social sphere.”

And here, there is a hypothesis which may explain the hidden, obscure motives for Putin’s desire to unite Fatherland with Unity. What we have here is probably a way of keeping the options open–a trick typical of Putin the secret agent. Some analysts believe that Putin is preparing to unite Unity and Fatherland in case his current liberal policy fails. Putin will need the popular center if he has to retreat and move to the Left. The new center is more suitable for a policy of moderate market reforms, which envisage retaining state control over the natural monopolies. In this entirely plausible scenario, Putin will resolve the current contradiction between his declared statist ideology and his economic policy of complete liberalization of the economy. Under these circumstances, Putin will probably create an alliance of centrists and siloviki, which will become the mainstay of his regime.

Aleksandr Tsipko is senior associate at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for International Economic and Political Research and a columnist for Literaturnaya Gazeta.