United or Just: how will the chips fall?

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“Five years from now, Russia will have an established two-party system,” says RBK Daily. The number of parties and movements participating in parliamentary elections has declined steadily in recent years. Central Electoral Commission (CEC) Chairman Alexander Veshnyakov predicts that around ten parties will be eligible to take part in the Duma election of 2007, and around five parties in 2011. RBK Daily notes: “How many of them will achieve their goal? That largely depends on the representation threshold: it’s been set at 7% of the vote for 2007, and no one can guarantee that it won’t be raised to 10% later. Moreover, parties have already been forbidden to form electoral blocs, and they are now required to have at least 50,000 members nationwide.”

The financial factor is also facilitating a reduction in party numbers. “Predictions of a two-party system by 2011 seem entirely realistic,” says CEC member Elena Dubrovina. “It’s costing more and more to run a full-scale election campaign, and only large parties can afford to do so.”

RBK Daily notes: “Under the circumstances, by 2011 no more than two parties out of five will be able to get themselves elected to the Duma.”

Which parties? According to journalists and experts, they will be United Russia and the new Just Russia (Spravedlivaya Rossiya), resulting from a merger of the Motherland (Rodina) party, the Russian Party of Pensioners, and the Russian Party of Life.

Just Russia was established on Saturday, October 28.

RBK Daily quotes Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov, leader of Just Russia, who described the inaugural congress as follows: “This is a great day for three left-wing parties. Never in Russia’s recent history has there been a union of three real political forces, with their own prospects and their own electorates.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta observed: “Orderly columns of buses delivered members of three parties to the congress that morning, and took away members of one party that evening.”

Mironov, positioning himself as Russia’s third most senior state official according to the Constitution, was (predictably) elected leader of the new party.

According to Vedomosti, “the congress received greeting messages from President Vladimir Putin, and – for the first time in the history of party-building – from Patriarch Aleksii II.”

The only delegate to speak out against the merger was the representative of Motherland’s St. Petersburg branch: Duma member Yuri Saveliev, best known for his report on the Beslan school hostage siege. Saveliev told Kommersant: “Motherland was an opposition party. In the Duma, we always voted against the anti-people bills that Mironov subsequently approved in the Federation Council.”

The party’s logo shows a Russian flag with an expanded red stripe on which gold letters spell out “Just Russia.” Party leaders posed for the television cameras against the backdrop of a map of the USSR. Mironov denied any analogies with the Communist Party: “Red was the color of justice long before the revolution.”

Mironov responded sharply to Communist Party (CPRF) leader Gennadi Zyuganov’s recent comment to the effect that Mironov ought to be exiled to Kolyma. Nezavisimaya Gazeta quotes Mironov as saying: “Sounds like Gennadi Zyuganov is losing his nerve – he understands that a powerful force is being born.”

Neither did Mironov neglect to mention his chief rival, the United Russia party. He told Vremya Novostei: “Let United Russia wait and worry. Hence their nervous reaction to our unification – but we’ll be fighting them on equal terms.”

Kommersant quotes Mironov as saying that “it is not our objective” to get 7% of the vote in 2007 and cross the threshold: “We shall be pursuing other objectives, and actually competing with United Russia.” He told the Gazeta newspaper: “They may be the Kremlin party, but we’ll be the people’s party.” Kommersant reports that one of Just Russia’s main objectives, according to Mironov, is to reduce the income gap between Russia’s richest and poorest 10%: from the present factor of 30 to a factor of 2.5.

Mironov refuses to identify the new party’s position on a right-to-left sliding scale: “Draw a perpendicular line, and draw a bright sun at the top of it. That’s where we are.”

Mironov himself isn’t planning to run for president. “At present, I have no intention or wish to do so,” he told the Vremya Novostei newspaper. “We support Vladimir Putin’s policy course, and shall continue to do so. We won’t permit Russia to deviate from its current course after 2008.” Apparently, not even Putin’s successor will be allowed to do so.

In an interview posted on the Radio Liberty website, political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky says he doesn’t believe this. In his view, Mironov obviously does have some presidential aspirations. However, there are also five or six other people (including Sergei Sobyanin, Boris Gryzlov, Valentina Matviyenko) who “expect to become the designated successor – and would say as much if you woke them in the middle of the night and asked a sudden question.” Belkovsky predicts: “Based on Putin’s usual line of conduct, the successor won’t actually be selected any earlier than three or four months before President Putin’s departure. It could happen after the next parliamentary election, which will serve as a form of primaries for potential successors.”

St. Petersburg-based political analyst Vladimir Gelman also told Radio Liberty that Mironov doesn’t have any presidential prospects of his own. According to Gelman, “a person whose record to date shows him to be a puppet is unlikely to become an active, independent politician as leader of a new party. Mironov – or the forces behind Mironov – will aim to attract a certain proportion of voters who, for one reason or another, don’t vote for United Russia. It’s like the scavengers moving in after the predators have eaten their fill. However, I do suspect that this new party can be used effectively in the battle for the grand prize: who will make use of the outcome of the 2008 presidential election, and how.”

Belkovsky maintains that the creation of Just Russia was sanctioned (and partly initiated) by Vladimir Putin himself: “In Putin’s view, United Russia doesn’t consist of responsible politicians. It consists of people who exist for the purpose of carrying out his instructions.” In the parliamentary election of 2007, Putin wants to ensure that forces loyal to himself get a constitutional majority.” However, says Belkovsky, if that majority is handed entirely to one party, Putin might find himself hostage to United Russia – “which might suddenly change from a club of puppets to a political entity that actually aspires to control its own father-president.” And this is precisely why an alternative party project has been launched. It will enable Putin to form a constitutional majority in the next parliament without giving United Russia even a simple majority: only around 45-47%, with the new left-wing force getting about 20%.

As Valery Fedorov, general director of the VTsIOM polling agency, observes in the Rossiiskaya Gazeta newspaper, the October regional elections showed that the newcomer isn’t up to challenging United Russia yet. “However, the fact that Mironov’s party crossed the 7% threshold in most regions indicates that it did pass the test.” Fedorov says: “The innovative political cocktail prepared by Mironov, combining loyalty to President Putin with strong criticism of United Russia, found plenty of supporters in the regions. Overall, the three parties now united into a center-left opposition headed by Mironov performed well in the October elections, getting a combined total of over 20% in several regions.” This fits in with Stanislav Belkovsky’s forecast.

United Russia is sensitive about the creation of a new party, despite its assurances that it still regards the CPRF as its chief rival in the next election. In Fedorov’s view, United Russia is stung by the loss of its status as the sole Kremlin party. However, Fedorov also cites VTsIOM poll data showing that when respondents were asked how they would vote if Putin endorses both Just Russia and United Russia equally, 41% chose United Russia and 11% chose Mironov’s party. But Fedorov notes that in order to hold its ground, United Russia must decide in favor of being center-right, since the left-wing nature of existing public demand is greatly exaggerated and the center-left niche is already overcrowded. United Russia also needs to put some effort into regional party-building.

United Russia’s problems in the regions are also discussed by Saratov-based political analyst Denis Yesipov in an article for Kommersant. Saratov is the place where three regional lawmakers – Vladimir Titayev, Vladimir Santalov, and Vasili Poimtsev – have announced that they are quitting United Russia and may join the new unified left-wing party. “As a result, while the new left’s unification process gathers strength, we are also seeing fragmentation into factions and clans within United Russia, accompanied by scandals and squabbling.” In Yesipov’s view, all this could result in some prominent United Russia politicians joining the new party: “And from that standpoint, the announcement from the three Saratov lawmakers could catalyze some irreversible processes for the party’s regional branch.”

“The Kremlin is worried about real competition between its two parties,” says Alexei Makarkin, director of the Political Techniques Center, in an interview with the Delo newspaper (St. Petersburg). In Makarkin’s opinion, the Kremlin initially wanted these two parties to occupy the entire political field, but not to compete with each other: United Russia would continue to aim for the pro-Kremlin vote, while Just Russia would take votes from the CPRF. However, says Makarkin, the reality is such that “as 2007 approaches, it will become even clearer that this isn’t just a matter of dividing roles and functions – we are seeing the start of real competition within the elite. And this means that there really is some demand in Russia for a normal multi-party system and a competitive battle for political power.” Makarkin doesn’t expect Russia to develop a classic multi-party system typical of Western states, but “there is some chance that the next parliamentary election won’t be just a referendum for United Russia, but will involve real political competition.”

RBK Daily points out that Just Russia “isn’t the Kremlin’s first attempt to take over the entire field of politics, from right to left. ‘Two-legged’ Kremlin party arrangements have been used before. In 1995, for example, there was Our Home is Russia, positioned as a right-wing party, and the hastily-assembled center-left Ivan Rybkin Bloc, intended to take votes away from the CPRF. The plan failed: the CPRF got 22.3% of the vote in the Duma election of 1995, while the pro-Kremlin leftists only got 1.1%.”

RIA Novosti observer Svetlana Babayeva maintains that the newborn Just Russia has some distinct advantages. This party has managed to capture the political spirit of the times: our society’s demand for justice (fairness).

Babayeva says: “Patriots are in fashion these days. In the 1980s, many people beat their breasts and swore loyalty to the Party. In the 1990s, they claimed to be true democrats. Nowadays it’s fashionable to be a patriot. However, this works just like clothing fashions: once everyone starts wearing a certain style or item, it rapidly loses its novelty – it ceases to be a gimmick, a mark of the elect. And the search for something new begins.”

United Russia started seeking gimmicks in spring. “And it’s even found a few – for example, its tactic of intervening and ‘taking charge’ of various unpleasant situations that happen to ordinary people in their everyday lives: evictions or housing fraud, or environmental protection at the youth level, and so on. But this tactic hasn’t been used widely as yet.”

Just Russia’s gimmick is the first word in its title.

Babayeva says: “The demand for ‘spravedlivost’ (justice or fairness) is essentially the strongest demand among the public these days – especially since Russia’s hierarchy of values has always given priority to justice (fairness) over material prosperity.”

The word is also convenient because skillful PR can use it to convey a variety of content. Yuliana Slashcheva, president of the Mikhailov and Partners agency, told Newsweek Russia that today’s PR consultants use a concept known as “legendized truth.” They no longer need to lie openly. In other words, “truth is so multifaceted that there’s no need to resort to lies.”

Babayeva provides a list of what justice (fairness) may mean for different people: taking all of Russia’s wealth and sharing it out equally, or deporting all immigrants, or reporting your boss to the taxation authorities, or slashing the tires on your neighbor’s new car. In other words, there is plenty of demand out there – and content will be provided.

Meanwhile, Gorbachev Foundation analyst Valery Solovei notes in Novaya Gazeta that “United Russia has a new opponent, which will grow stronger. It’s not Mironov’s party. United Russia will have to take on a more serious rival, known as voter apathy.”

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