Fifteen years after August 1991, Russia’s party system grows a second leg

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In the lead-up to the August 1991 coup attempt anniversary, the press and pollsters have tried to find out how attitudes have changed, in Russia and the West, to the events of 15 years ago and those who played the leading roles.

The Novaya Gazeta newspaper has published the results of polls done by the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) and the Harris Service (United States).

The Harris Service found that 59% of respondents in the European Union still consider Mikhail Gorbachev the best Soviet/Russian leader in the past 20 years. Vladimir Putin averaged 12%, while Boris Yeltsin scored only 4%.

The FOM poll in Russia produced some entirely different results. Only 12% of respondents took a “generally positive” view of Gorbachev, while 28% took a negative view.

FOM notes that dislike of Gorbachev is clearly declining: a poll in 2000 showed 42% of respondents disliking him. But indifference to Gorbachev is on the rise: 35% of respondents were indifferent in 2000, compared to 54% in the latest poll.

According to Novaya Gazeta, the primary reason for the difference between Russian and Western perceptions of Gorbachev is that in the West, the significance of democratic values – human rights, pluralism, free speech – has remained unchanged. So the leader who “brought freedom” to a vast country was and remains the most understandable and likable of Soviet/Russian leaders, in the view of Western voters.

What’s more, as Novaya Gazeta points out, the perestroika leader relieved the whole world of its constant fear of the threat of a direct nuclear conflict, and constant tension in relations between two different systems.

In contrast, says Novaya Gazeta, democratic values have become less popular in Russia these days, while “post-imperial phantom pains” are becoming more perceptible among the Russian elite and the general public: “Consequently, perestroika and its leader clearly don’t fit in with these trends.”

All the same, Novaya Gazeta sees some reason for optimism in the “positive dynamics” regarding attitudes to perestroika and Gorbachev, observed by pollsters among “young, well-educated, successful respondents.”

In Ogonek, the most popular Soviet/Russian magazine of the late 1980s and early 1990s, sociologist Boris Dubin offers his own assessment of current attitudes in Russia.

According to Dubin, “the alternatives of that era – communists or democrats, reforms or stagnation – have ceased to be decisive” for most Russian citizens today. Consequently, “as often happens in history, a third option – neither the former nor the latter – has won.”

In Russia today, says Dubin, an entirely different play is on the stage: “The significant words in its title are ‘stability’ and ‘security.'” And the leading actor on the Russian stage is now “a person who’s part of the system, and who generally isn’t disliked by the masses – but that’s all.”

In this context, the Ogonek article recalls the most popular opinion poll response regarding Vladimir Putin: “I don’t have anything bad to say about him.”

Times change, but as Nezavisimaya Gazeta shows, the leader of perestroika still has his own perspective on things.

In a major interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Mikhail Gorbachev says: “The incumbent president of Russia is pursuing a policy course aimed at entrenching market economy institutions and reinforcing democracy in the interests of the majority. That’s why I support Putin.”

Thus, Gorbachev’s views differ not only from public opinion in the West (which is quite critical of the Russian government’s actions, judging by media reports), but also from the views of Russian citizens. As everyone knows, most Russian citizens also support Putin – but this is largely because there’s really no one else to support. There are hardly any colorful, charismatic politicians in Russia these days.

“And the current master of the Kremlin has only himself to blame for that,” says the Moskovskii Komsomolets newspaper.

According to Moskovskii Komsomolets, “Russia is witnessing the degeneration of its political elite,” since “all levers of power are held by the head of state.” The only people still afloat around President Putin are “entirely loyalist functionaries, carrying out orders received from above.”

As long as Putin (“more than a president,” says Moskovskii Komsomolets) is in the Kremlin, he will remain “the cement that holds together the political system he has created.” Obviously, any attempt to replace this “load-bearing structure” carries the risk of toppling the entire carefully-constructed hierarchy of governance.

This is precisely why those at the top are so concerned about the notorious Year 2008 Problem.

So far, says Moskovskii Komsomolets, unofficial “successor contests” haven’t been able to solve this problem: “Nobody’s winning the race yet. All the horses, without exception, look far too feeble.”

Moskovskii Komsomolets isn’t even optimistic about First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, though his approval rating seems to be rising gradually.

According to Moskovskii Komsomolets, Medvedev has failed to become a “real center of influence” in the government. An anonymous source from the Cabinet staff told Moskovskii Komsomolets: “Medvedev simply isn’t making full use of the resources available to him. He’s surrounded himself with technical functionaries, who can’t really be described as a team.” The source added: “The impression is that Medvedev’s main priority is to avoid interfering in anything.”

The Moskovskie Novosti weekly reports on Medvedev with unconcealed sympathy: “This sophisticated lawyer from St. Petersburg, who’s had the good fortune to be chosen as a successor candidate, is now forced to look at population growth graphs and discuss maternity hospitals (the demography project), or put on an interested expression when people show him pigs and fish (the agriculture project).” Perhaps this is why Medvedev clearly lacks drive, despite his rising rating, says Moskovskie Novosti: “The only time he seems like himself is when he’s talking about civil law.”

Moskovskie Novosti maintains that Medvedev “would look great as the chief executive of the Russian office of some major company like BP or Goldman Sachs – but his path is different,” and so far he hasn’t produced any noticeable achievements.

Meanwhile, the Gazeta newspaper reports that judging by the draft budget for 2007, which the Finance Ministry recently submitted to the Cabinet staff, both of the leading successor candidates – Dmitri Medvedev and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov – are competing with each other quite successfully in the area of distributing the ongoing inflow of petrodollars with a view to next year’s election campaigns.

Gazeta reports that the state plans to spend over 820 billion rubles on national defense next year – that’s around 15% of total spending. A further 664 billion rubles will go to national security and law enforcement – another budget area controlled by Sergei Ivanov.

Gazeta notes that Medvedev’s budget arguments seem more modest at first sight.

Education funding for next year will be around 277 billion rubles. A further 205 billion rubles will go to sports and health-care. But social policy spending will be somewhat reduced in 2007: from just over 217 billion rubles this year to 212 billion rubles next year.

And yet, says Gazeta, social spending could also be covered by money from the largest budget item of all: inter-budget transfers. Medvedev, who’s in charge of Moscow’s policy on the regions, can make up for lost ground here: the federal budget will allocate over 1.8 trillion rubles for subsidies to the regions next year. As Gazeta notes, “this is easily more than all of Ivanov’s money.”

This brings to mind another Gorbachev quote from the Nezavisimaya Gazeta interview: Putin’s successor ought to be “a mature person.” Whatever that means.

Then again, Gorbachev also named the essential selection criterion: “In this case, it’s important for us to hear whom President Putin will name.”

All the same, the choice of successor is only one of the problems inherent in the impending change of administration. An equally important task is to ensure that the next president, whoever he may be, has the political support he needs – primarily the support of Russia’s legislators.

The Russian Party of Life (RPL) is headed by Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov. Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration, met with RPL lawmakers in March, and the minutes of that meeting were posted on the RPL website this week.

According to the Kommersant newspaper, the release of the minutes at this point – now that the RPL has announced its forthcoming merger with the Motherland (Rodina) party, to form a party of “the relevant left” – confirms that “the president’s political strategists are aiming to establish a two-party system in Russia.”

In other words, the Kremlin would be able to draw support from either of two “system-forming” parties, as needed.

As he usually does, Surkov used figurative language to describe the essence of the problem: “Our society lacks a ‘second leg’ to which it could shift its weight when the first leg goes numb. Russia needs a second large party.” According to the Kremlin’s plan, this party should collect the votes that now go to “left-leaning” parties “with a strong nationalist flavor,” as Surkov put it.

Kommersant notes that the combined total of votes cast for the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, the Communist Party, and Motherland in the Duma election of 2003 was about equal to the number of votes collected by United Russia. In other words, the new party should ideally have as much voter support as three current parliamentary parties combined.

It turns out that Surkov invited the RPL to head this new formation as far back as March: “No one has yet undertaken this noble mission. I think you could attempt it. Your party’s policy program and public rhetoric offer the hope that there is such a chance – not in the next two years, perhaps, but in the next five.”

“The RPL’s hyperactivity is understandable,” says Izvestia politics editor Kirill Privalov. “Following the recent merger between the RPL, founded by Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov, and the refurbished Motherland, the new party is being given a chance to prove itself ready for this autumn’s regional elections.”

But Surkov is giving the RPL at least five years to become Russia’s major left-wing party, filling Motherland’s niche: this is about two electoral cycles. Privalov notes: “United Russia is supposed to dominate Russian politics and elections for the next 15-20 years.” Hence, “United Russia and the RPL aren’t rivals – just different-sized poles on the political spectrum.”

Moreover, says Privalov, it’s clear that Surkov is forced to take Russia’s realities into account: “He’d like to see Russia have a two-party system now, like the systems used in America or France. But he understands that this is impossible at our present stage of social development.”

Nevertheless, the Kremlin’s chief ideologue is being entirely consistent, aiming for a clear goal: “Russian politics should not give any party a monopoly or the advantages of primogeniture. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be a democracy.”

Olga Kryshtanovskaya, director of the Applied Policy Institute, told the Vedomosti newspaper that among the major reasons for releasing Surkov’s speech now is the need to give regional elites a signal about the Kremlin’s plans for Sergei Mironov’s party.

Ekspert magazine also maintains that the new party will be particularly attractive for many members of Russia’s regional elites.

“Those who haven’t made it into the current in-crowd, but don’t want to join the opposition either” will readily join the new pro-Putin party, says Ekspert. Besides, “regional politicians who used to see Motherland as an alternative to United Russia, and have been discouraged by its disqualifications in recent elections, will now be able to feel like winners.”

Ekspert predicts that “the new organization could become quite attractive for regional politicians with dubious reputations and great ambitions.”

Moreover, says Ekspert, the opposition mentioned so frequently by Motherland and RPL leaders “effectively turns out to be opposition to United Russia only – not opposition to the regime, let alone to Putin.” Ekspert maintains that the the main asset of this opposition is likely to be “the opportunity to move much further to the left than United Russia can permit itself to do.” And although the radicalism of the old-style Motherland is unlikely to find a place in the new party, a milder form of nationalism “could well become a supplementary ideological and electoral resource.”

But this party-building incident has some other aspects as well. Iosif Diskin, co-chairman of the National Strategy Council, told the Novye Izvestia newspaper that the release of the minutes from almost six months ago is primarily aimed at confirming the identity of this new party’s creator.

Novye Izvestia explains that in the past couple of weeks, some media reports have speculated that Vladislav Surkov simply didn’t know of the sudden RPL-Motherland merger. Some articles have even claimed that “the Kremlin’s siloviki (security and law enforcement) faction took advantage of Surkov’s vaction to launch their own party-building scenario.” The release of the minutes, however, demonstrates for all to see that Surkov “stood at the source of the project as far back as March, and is still the founder.”

However, says Diskin, it’s entirely possible that these days the siloviki “have no interest at all in the parliament or the Duma election of 2007.” That’s because all the main political forces are already focused on the main event: the presidential election of 2008.

Meanwhile, Vladislav Surkov is laboring all alone – and not unsuccessfully, says Novye Izvestia – on the party-building front.

But experts question the effectiveness of artificial party-building. Leading political analyst Georgy Satarov told Moskovskie Novosti to think back to Russia’s previous center-left party, also established by the Kremlin’s command: Ivan Rybkin’s party. Does anyone other than its founders remember it now?

Moskovskie Novosti concludes philosophically that one way or another, the hierarchy that’s become established in all areas of life these days isn’t doing anything to promote grass-roots interest in political parties – or in politics as such.

Ladies and gentlemen, happy August anniversary!

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