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Party Lines Being Drawn


President Dmitry Medvedev gestures during a press conference at the Skolokovo innovation center outside Moscow on May 18.

President Dmitry Medvedev gestures during a press conference at the Skolokovo innovation center outside Moscow on May 18.

It wasn't until December 10, 2007 that Russia and the world learned that Dmitry Medvedev had been anointed to follow Vladimir Putin into the Kremlin. A week later, on December 17, Putin said he would agree to serve as Medvedev's prime minister -- and the tandem was born.

Significantly, none of this happened until more than a week after elections to the State Duma, in which United Russia won 315 out of 450 seats -- with a huge assist from the Kremlin's media machine and administrative resources.

We should expect a similar timetable this time around and anybody who came away disappointed or surprised that Medvedev did not reveal his 2012 plans at his press conference Wednesday is missing the point.

In an interview with "Nezavisimaya gazeta," Olga Kryshtanovskaya, head of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Sociology's Center of Elite Studies, explains why:

What could he say on this question? Clearly, as soon as either Putin or Medvedev announces that he is running for election, the fate of the parliamentary campaign changes. If Putin runs it means United Russia will grow and Medvedev becomes a lame duck and the ventures involving a right-wing party become pointless: [Mikhail] Prokhorov [as leader of Right Cause] gets nowhere. If Medvedev says he is running, then United Russia could sink, because the people joining the People's Front are Putin supporters and then they will realize that their efforts are futile. Putin fails -- and United Russia fails, and then it is not clear what happens in parliament.

In 2007, a United Russia-dominated Duma made the Putin-Medvedev tandem possible in 2008. Likewise, the contours of the post-2012 political arrangements won't be clear until the composition of the legislative branch is settled.

And what the Duma will look like after the December 4 elections will, of course, be decided not by the voters but by the elite -- an elite that appears sharply divided over the issue.

Will United Russia be allowed to maintain such a massive majority? What role will the nascent Popular Front play? Will more parties, like the Prokhorov-powered Right Cause, be allowed in? What will be the fate of A Just Russia after Sergei Mironov's sacking as Federation Council speaker?

United Russia clearly wants to hang on to its overwhelmingly dominant position. But there are clearly those in the elite who think this is a recipe for stagnation. And while we shouldn't hold out breath in anticipation of genuine pluralism in the Duma, some powerful voices have argued for some form of managed pluralism.

One of Medvedev's more telling remarks came when he was asked whether he thought the president could be a member of a political party -- which would be a break from post-Soviet Russian tradition:

If I run for president. I would of course like to draw on the support of political parties. There are not so very many of them -- whose support should I draw on? I would like to draw on the support of those, among others, on whose support I have previously drawn. Can a president create his own political force? Yes, he can. Can he be a party member? He can.

In her remarks to "Nezavisimaya gazeta," Kryshtanovskaya seemed to attach a lot of significance to this comment:

Medvedev has never spoken distinctly about this. And this is connected with the talk that Prokhorov is going into Right Cause in order to boost the party for Medvedev as leader. But nonetheless the president said something completely different. It was a nod in the direction of United Russia. This emphasizes the impossibility of the simultaneous nomination of Putin and Medvedev.

I think this is correct, but Medvedev's comment also suggests to me that Russia's political party landscape could be in for a bit of an overhaul that will set the table for the post-2012 system.

And with just over six months before the Duma elections, just what kind of changes are coming should come into focus soon.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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