Deputy Kremlin Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov, the regime's chief ideologist, usually shuns the public spotlight. But there he was on Wednesday telling a group of young State Duma deputies that Russian democracy has matured, is stable, and needs to develop. He also raised eyebrows by calling on United Russia to cooperate with other parties:
Surkov's comments appeared to contrast earlier statements he made criticizing public figures who suggested that Russia's political system needed to be opened up. They also contradict the conclusions of the Public Projects Institute, a think tank close to United Russia, which released a report last week saying greater democracy in Russia would be harmful.
So what's going on? Prior to the economic crisis, some analysts believed that the Kremlin's grand plan was to create a virtual -- read fake -- multi-party system similar to the ones that existed in some Soviet satellites like Communist-era Czechoslovakia and East Germany. (Or, more accurately, to restructure the virtual -- read fake -- multi-party system it has now)
The idea was to bring erstwhile -- or potential -- opponents of the regime into the system where they could be controlled and co-opted. This was the idea behind making former opposition figure Nikita Belykh governor of Kirov Oblast in December, for example.
It was also the idea behind the creation of the new Kremlin-friendly party Right Cause from the remnants of the opposition Union of Rightist Forces.
The economic crisis and the public discontent it sparked clearly spooked the Kremlin and the plan appeared to have been mothballed. Are Surkov's comments an indication that the elite feels safe enough to proceed?
Perhaps, but apparently not everybody is on board. Speaking to the same event on Wednesday, State Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov said there was a chance in the late Soviet period to establish a multi-party system, but that chance was missed:
Our parliament of the majority based on one party is a necessity for Russia...The parliamentary majority allows us to adopt laws that determine political and economic stability.
Gryzlov added that given United Russia's large majority in the Duma, the party should have more of its members represented in Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's government.
It is unclear whether this is one of those staged debates the Kremlin sometimes stages to meet its PR needs of the moment, or if a real argument is afoot about the need to make (cosmetic) changes in the system to stem rising discontent. My instincts tell me it is the latter. And the fact that both Gryzlov and the Public Projects Institute are so publicly opposing any changes suggests that at least part of the United Russia leadership -- which would lose a bit of patronage power under the scheme -- is not entirely on board.
Surkov made news again today with a high-profile trip to Bashkortostan to pay a visit to regional chief Murtaza Rakhimov -- who earlier in the month created a minor scandal by comparing the level of centralization in Russia today to that of the Soviet Union. The Interfax news agency quoted an unidentified as saying that the visit will give Rakhimov "the chance to correct the situation and save face."
At least publicly, there were no recriminations. "I am very glad that there is such a high level of democracy in Bashkortostan," Surkov said of the region that Rakhimov rules like a personal fiefdom. "There is no problem here."
-- Brian Whitmore