The Latest in Party Fashion

24 August 2006
Boris Kagarlitsky

The Latest in Party Fashion
Boris Kagarlitsky
The Mowscow Times, 24 August 2006

The presidential administration is currently wrestling with the question of how to make Russia's political system stand on its own two feet.

The idea is not a new one. In 1995, the administration of then-President Boris Yeltsin decided to create a bipartisan system, based on one center-right party and one from the center-left. More specifically, the rightist party was meant to be in power while the other was to play the role of the respectable and responsible opposition.

Officials willingly signed up for the first party, Our Home Is Russia. But the bloc failed to live up to Yeltsin's hopes and formed only the second-largest faction in the Duma. The center-left party caused one headache after another. The Bloc of Ivan Rybkin crashed and burned in the elections and no one joined. It was easy to find candidates and support for the party of power, but no one had the strength to organize an opposition party.

When United Russia was created, the Kremlin drew some strange conclusions from this history and created one party with left and right wings, thereby leaving the pluralism problem to solve itself. Those who favored a right-leaning party could vote for United Russia; those who preferred the left could do the same.

Ahead of next year's State Duma election, the Kremlin appears to have grown tired of this simple scheme. For starters, the whole thing already looks like a bad joke. Secondly, there is a new problem: Given the general funk the opposition is in and the adoption of more prohibitive legislation, there is a danger that almost no one outside of United Russia will make it into the Duma. The Communists are barely above the 7 percent mark and the LDPR, as always, has a chance, but that's probably it.

Even the humorless employees of the presidential administration recognize that this would look ridiculous and could in no way strengthen Russia's image as a democratic state.

The Kremlin would probably love to get the liberals back into the parliament, but voters are currently otherwise disposed. It would be possible to sneak a party currently polling about 5 or 6 percent over the 7 percent barrier, but getting a party there from 2 percent is beyond even the reach of the spin doctors in the Central Elections Commission.

Meanwhile, United Russia is growing increasingly unable to flap its "left wing." Policy is being dictated by the right wing of the party, which is just fine with the presidential administration and the government but not popular with all of its officials or its membership. All Andrei Isayev's "social wing" can do is try to keep a straight face while explaining rightists' programs are actually putting the leftists' ideas into practice.

In essence, the administration is going back to the 1995 scheme, and this time, with the decline of the Communist Party, it seems to have a better chance of flying. Public opinion polls suggest that the new structure, which will draw its personnel and leaders from a merger of the Russian Party of Life and Rodina, would attract more support from voters.

For the Kremlin, the advantages of this scheme are obvious. Nothing has to be created from scratch, so there is less worry that the fiasco of 1995 will be repeated.

But the approach does raise some problems. First off, neither of the two parties slated to merge is truly leftist. Second, none of their staff are ready or want to merge. The parties have managed to form a unified list for the regional elections scheduled for Oct. 8 in just two of 10 regions. Further, the plan to squeeze out the Communists will clearly fail. The Communist Party can easily afford to give up the vote of the radical left, but radical left parties aren't allowed to take part in elections anyway. The nebulous Party of Life is more likely to swipe voters from United Russia, and disaffected politicians from the party of power will have somewhere to go if they want to desert. This is unlikely to fit with the Kremlin's plans and the new party is already running into problems. The first alarm bell rang in the Sverdlovsk region, where the Party of Life was accused of falsifying signatures and denied registration for elections.

The Kremlin's political architects will not be too disappointed if the plan falls apart, however. Those in the presidential administration have exhibited a lot of initiative and imagination. You can be sure that, if this plan falls apart, they will simply come up with another one.

Copyright 2006 The Moscow Times