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Ruling Party Blues

A voting booth at a polling station in Irkutsk.
A voting booth at a polling station in Irkutsk.
Did the Kremlin really get the results it wanted in last weekend's regional elections?

In a post earlier this week, fellow Vertical-head Robert Coalson makes a convincing case that the (seemingly) embarrassing losses suffered by United Russia in some regions may have been just what the masters of Moscow's political universe ordered.

By channeling popular anger into a few pseudo-opposition parties and creating the illusion of pluralism (there's that pokazukha again!), the Kremlin could very well be seeking to deflate mounting anti-government sentiment and marginalize the true opposition.

Julia Ioffe over at Foreign Policy makes a similar point, arguing that United Russia's "shrewd party decision to give up some local votes allows the Kremlin-engineered system of plunder to carry on with only very minor adjustments."

Putting the strategy in broader context, Vladimir Kara-Murza has a post at "World Affairs Journal" suggesting that the Kremlin is attempting to create a fake multiparty system modeled on Communist-era East Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia:

Contrary to popular belief, not all Soviet bloc countries were one-party states. Some had 'multiparty' systems, with the Communists formally sharing power with other political groups... Needless to say, all 'non-communist' parties faithfully towed their governments’ (and Moscow’s) line, for all intents and purposes serving as subsidiaries of the regime. The system created by Vladimir Putin, who once served in East Germany, remarkably resembles this model.

In today's Russia, the Communists, Liberal Democrats, and A Just Russia may huff and puff here and there, but, as Kara-Murza notes "when it comes to issues sensitive to the Kremlin...the “parliamentary opposition” drops all pretenses" and toes the line.

Attentive readers of this blog will recall that the Deputy Kremlin Chief of Staff (and uber-ideologist) Vladislav Surkov had been pushing such an East German-style system last summer, but consistently ran into opposition from the United Russia leadership, which is reluctant to share power.

For what it's worth, I think that establishing such a pseudo multiparty system is indeed supported by at least part of the Kremlin brain trust. But with ongoing economic uncertainty angering voters, emboldening the real opposition, and sparking increased political infighting at the top, pulling off such a move is fraught with danger for the ruling elite. Such a project could easily spin out of control in today's environmenmt.

In an interview with "Svobodnaya pressa" prior to Sunday's election, Moscow-based political analyst Vladimir Pribylovsky correctly predicted that deepening clan battles would continue to harm United Russia's prospects at the polls:

United Russia has never been particularly united, especially in the regions. In general, United Russia is not an independent party. It is the product of administrative clout: that of the Kremlin's on the federal level and of the governors or mayors on the regional level. The Kremlin is not united on the federal level, so there are factions in United Russia as well. They are the clientele of various administration oligarchs and various officials. The same thing happens on the regional level, and this is more noticeable in the developed regions.

And these divisions, Pribylovsky argues, spell electoral trouble for the ruling party. In the Irkutsk, for example, Communist-backed candidate Viktor Kondrashov walloped United Russia's Sergei Serebrennikov, the city's deputy mayor, by more than a two-to-one margin.

Part of United Russia's poor showing could be attributed to public anger over government plans to reopen the Baikalsk Paper and Pulp Mills, which is staunchly opposed by environmentalists because the plant will dump waste into Lake Baikal. That decision sparked protests in the Siberian city.

But part of United Russia's problems in Irkutsk were also due to a nasty feud between a faction of the party supporting Serebrennikov and one supporting another candidate, Anton Romanov, who was ultimately barred from running over technicalities. After being stripped of his right to run, Romanov turned around and endorsed the Communist Kondrashov.

Pribylovsky also argues that United Russia is losing influence in the Kremlin as an increasingly divided elite cannot agree on what role the party should play:

Medvedev quite obviously does not value United Russia. The groups linking their future with Putin, on the other hand, have not turned their back on United Russia. When officials in the Kremlin and the White House cannot agree on United Russia's role, when they cannot agree on whether it is a valuable instrument or a worn-out toy that should be discarded, there are more opportunities to take independent action on the local level.

He adds that an increasing number of Kremlin officials, particularly technocrats close to Medvedev, view United Russia "as a depleted asset" that is well past its prime:

A couple of years ago, there was a consensus in the Kremlin that United Russia was necessary. Now this consensus does not exist and that is why its position has grown weaker. The party has no standing with the voters. It has standing in the Kremlin. Everything else is just a product of this.

Ironically, Sunday's election took place on the 20th anniversary of the birth of Russia's multiparty system. On March 14, 1990, the Congress of Peoples' Deputies formally revoked Article Six of the Soviet Constitution, which guaranteed the Communist Party a monopoly on political power.

Two decades later, a truly competitive multiparty elections remain as elusive as ever.

-- 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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