United Russia Truly Unites

01 May 2006
Article
 
Boris Kagarlitsky

United Russia Truly Unites
Boris Kagarlitsky
The Moscow Times, 24 November 2005

The United Russia party seems to be uniting the country all right, but not in the way it probably intended. In its drive to occupy every elective office in the land, United Russia has earned the ire of its rivals and driven them to form all sorts of curious alliances.

The local election campaigns underway this fall in many regions could be a political watershed if only because they are the first to be held under new rules instituted by the State Duma. In theory, the new rules should increase the role played by political parties by requiring regional legislatures to implement a system of proportional representation based on party lists. Many analysts believe, however, that the only party to benefit from the changes will be the so-called party of power, United Russia.

Everyone knows perfectly well that the main political parties command vastly different resources. And everyone suspects that the rules of the game are less than fair. This combination has produced some unexpected bedfellows.

The Ivanovo region leads the way in this regard. First, an anti-United Russia bloc was officially registered. Then 15 political organizations, including left-wingers, liberals and nationalists, signed an appeal for free and fair elections and sent it to President Vladimir Putin. When their appeal fell on deaf ears, the organizations took matters into their own hands, forming the "AntiUnRu" coalition, which has begun to campaign actively in the region.

Similar developments have been observed in many other regions, but not in Moscow, where the ambitions of political leaders make cooperation between parties impossible.

When you examine the programs and campaign materials of the various parties, however, you soon discover that there is almost no difference between them. They all promise to improve the lives of average citizens and draw a clear line between Muscovites and illegal immigrants, a catch-all group that includes not just recent arrivals from the former Soviet republics, but also people from the Russian provinces who have come to the capital in search of work.

It's generally assumed that Muscovites were shocked by reports of the riots in France, and that residents of the city subsequently began to fear an uprising of foreigners in the suburbs. The only problem is that Moscow's suburbs aren't filled with foreigners, and many of the immigrants who come here to work are ethnic Russians or members of other Slavic nationalities.

Provincial politicians are prepared to unite to defeat the party of power. In Moscow, by contrast, the main parties are trying to unite voters by pitting them against the rest of Russia. Rodina, the Liberal Democratic Party, the Communist Party and even the Party of Life are all peddling this same basic message. Their campaign materials often combine xenophobia with Russophobia.

This helps to explain the bizarre argument between Rodina and the Liberal Democrats over television advertisements that suggest immigrants from the south are polluting the city's spirit and its environment. Rodina has aired a controversial spot, which the party's own supporters enthusiastically compare with the propaganda of French ultranationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen. Yet the party has nevertheless demanded that the Liberal Democrats pull a number of similar ads, condemning them as excessively nationalist in tone. That's what it means to be afraid of your opponent.

By comparison, the Moscow branch of United Russia seems like a class act. It offers the voters nothing but itself. The party has blanketed the city in posters of poorly drawn figures in blue overalls who tout their qualifications in the sort of hack verse so beloved of Soviet newspapers. As an alternative to reactionary nationalism, United Russia offers a bland void. The voters will undoubtedly opt for blandness, at least for now.

As the party of power, United Russia has the enormous power of the state at its disposal. You'll never overcome this with nationalist demagoguery and cheap campaign stunts. The only way to beat the party of power is by organizing at the grassroots level. And in this sense the provinces can teach Moscow a thing or two. The Ivanovo region has a particularly rich history of voter self-organization. It was here that the first soviets appeared during the 1905 revolution. But simply cobbling together a coalition of diverse political forces does not guarantee victory over United Russia, no matter how fed up people may be with the party. A serious political alternative must have substance, not just slogans. The only way the opposition will ever capture the voters' imagination is by putting forward a social policy capable of improving their lives.

Copyright 2005 The Moscow Times