Russia appears to be moving toward some form of managed pluralism. But the stress will clearly be more on the managed and less on the pluralism.
The limits of how far the ruling elite is prepared go in opening up the political system became clear today when the Justice Ministry denied registration to the opposition People's Freedom Party (known in Russian by the acronym PARNAS), led by Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Ryzhkov, Vladimir Milov, and Mikhail Kasyanov. The decision most likely means that the newly formed party will not be able to run in elections to the State Duma in December.
The ruling came just days after Medvedev, in a widely discussed interview with Britain's "Financial Times," said it was time to open up the State Duma to more parties. (You can watch the video of the interview here or read the transcript here.)
Medvedev indicated that it was time to lower the threshold to win seats in the Duma in order to bring more parties into the parliament, which could cut into United Russia's dominance:
Nevertheless, I believe the whole of political spectrum should be represented [in the State Duma]. I have taken decisions to this end to the best of my ability, but still I would like these decisions not to run counter to the general trend of development. What do I mean? The rules governing the election of members of the State Duma should be modified carefully, rather than overnight. For instance, once we raised the State Duma admittance threshold for political parties up to 7 percent
I think this might be the right thing to do to achieve the organization of the political forces. There cannot be hundreds of political parties in the country indeed, because this is weird, this is an indication of an underdeveloped political system. However, one day we will have to revise the decision and lower the barrier so that political competition improves and those unable to clear the 7 percent barrier can scrape together at least 5 percent or even 3 percent to get to the State Duma. This is an issue of political expediency in the final analysis.
What Medvedev's comments suggest is that the newly rebooted Right Cause party, led by the Kremlin-connected oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, will probably be headed for the Duma. Right Cause is scheduled to hold its congress on June 25, when they will formally elect Prokhorov as leader and adopt a platform.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, is tightening his grip on United Russia as the ruling party goes through an overhaul ahead of the December elections.
Last week, Putin addressed the Federal Coordinating Council of the nascent All-Russian Popular Front, which is laying the groundwork for its participation in the Duma elections.
Putin called on the Popular Front to hold competitive "primaries" among its members to choose candidates to run for the Duma on the ruling United Russia's party list:
"Kommersant" reported on June 20 that the "joint United Russia and Popular Front primaries" will be held throughout the country from July 21 to August 10 in preparation for the ruling party's annual congress on September 3-4.
But just as managed pluralism has its limits, the "real competition" Putin called for inside the ruling party will only go so far.
"Putin, the leader of United Russia and the All-Russia Popular Front, will be able to include and exclude candidates from the list that the party congress will approve for submission to the State Duma as he sees fit. So victory in the primaries does not guarantee inclusion on the party list," according to "Kommersant."
Several analysts, including Nikolai Petrov of the Moscow Carnegie Center, have pointed out that the Popular Front is being used as a vehicle to purge United Russia of its less effective members and bring in fresh blood.
Deputy Prime Minsiter Vyacheslav Volodin appeared to confirm this last week when he said the party would go through a "soft upgrade" by bringing in new members from the Popular Front. If this is the case, Putin clearly does not want to lose control of that process.
The composition of the Duma, and how much United Russia will dominate it, will be a key component of Russia's post-2012 political landscape.
Deputy Kremlin chief of staff Vladislav Surkov had been pushing a plan to create a tightly managed multiparty system that resembled that in communist-era Czechoslovakia, Poland, and East Germany. The plan was staunchly opposed by the current speaker of the Duma, Boris Gryzlov, who feared seeing United Russia lose its constitutional majority.
Gryzlov has said the party intends to hold on to -- and even augment -- its two-thirds majority, although I suspect this is still an open question and will remain so until very late in the game.
The first signals about what post-2012 Russia will look like will come in the (highly stage-managed) December elections.
With United Russia undergoing a rebranding, with Right Cause appearing as a plausible parliamentary party under Prokhorov, and with the recent meltdown of A Just Russia, the signals are still mixed at this point.
-- Brian Whitmore