The Muscovite party finds a new face

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A founding member of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) – Alexei Mitrovanov – is quitting that party to join Just Russia. Some expert observers are saying this won’t have any impact on the LDPR’s future, while others maintain that the party is doomed, since the Kremlin wants to move toward a two- or three-party system.

According to the Kommersant newspaper, Mitrofanov’s departure from the LDPR was dictated by a number of circumstances. As Mitrofanov himself said, “in the 1990s, the LDPR acted to stabilize the situation in Russia, but in the past four years the party has been in a political ghetto.” In Mitrofanov’s opinion, while the LDPR did manage to get some important bills passed in the previous Duma, the present convocation of the Duma has been a “scorched earth” situation: “I have written over a hundred bills, but only a few technical amendments have been passed – not a single substantial bill from the LDPR, and not a single amendment to the federal budget. Yes, the LDPR will make it into the next Duma, but what then? I think we’re moving toward a two-party system. The time of brilliant improvisations and intuition is drawing to a close. Systematic parties are emerging.”

Mitrofanov expressed the opinion that LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky “would also take this step if he could, but he can’t: the party is his baby.”

When asked about Mitrofanov’s prospects in the new party, Just Russia leader Sergei Mironov said that he might head one of its regional candidate groups in the Duma election. Kommersant remarks that although no specific region has been named as yet, Mitrofanov’s preferences can be inferred from his earlier attempts to participate in several regional elections. In 1999 he ran for mayor of Moscow, getting less than 1% of the vote; in November 2004 he finished sixth in the Pskov region’s gubernatorial election; in 2006 he ran for mayor of Dzerzhinsky (Moscow region) and came in fourth. Just Russia’s list of candidates for Moscow is already finalized (it will be headed by Duma member Alexander Lebedev), but Mitrofanov’s new party may well decide to use him in the Moscow region or Pskov.

The Gazeta newspaper reports that Vladimir Zhirinovsky is offended by his colleague’s departure. Until yesterday, Mitrofanov was the deputy leader of the LDPR. Now Zhirinovsky is saying: “He was never my right-hand man or left-hand man. In fact, he never carried any weight in the party at all. He never held any significant posts. Now the people will see what Just Russia is made of: defectors and traitors.”

Kommersant reports that the LDPR leadership had planned to get rid of Mitrofanov back in 2003. “But a number of Duma members talked me out of it, and he remained on our lists,” said Zhirinovsky. He admitted that Mitrofanov is “an active and talented journalist, who has managed to gain publicity for himself by participating in many broadcasts.” Zhirinovsky emphasized: “This did some damage to the LDPR.”

Newsru.com quotes Zhirinovsky as saying that Mitrofanov’s statements “have often drawn a negative response from voters.” Mitrofanov’s participation in a banned Gay Parade in Moscow had an extremely negative impact on the LDPR’s reputation, according to Zhirinovsky; he also pointed out that Mitrofanov has run for executive office in Pskov and the Moscow region, but got “a negligible share of the vote” every time.

Alexei Chernyshov, a member of the LDPR faction in the Duma, told the IA Regnum news agency: “Mitrofanov loves hanging out with the in crowd and drinking champagne at $1,000 a bottle. Our voters don’t drink thousand-dollar champagne. If Just Russia’s voters do, he’ll be a valuable acquisition for them.”

Boris Makarenko, senior deputy director of the Political Techniques Center, told Novye Izvestia that Mitrofanov quit the LDPR because his name was omitted from the top three on the party’s candidate list: “So they simply didn’t give him second place on the list.”

A source in the LDPR told the Vedomosti newspaper that Mitrofanov’s departure was prompted by the party’s decision to add Inteco-Agro owner Viktor Baturin to its candidate list. This entrepreneur is expected to be in the top three. Earlier, LDPR sources had indicated that Mitrofanov had the best chance of a place in the top three on the federal candidate list (along with Vladimir Zhirinovsky and his son, LDPR faction leader Igor Lebedev).

A source from a PR consultancy which has worked for Inteco relates how the LDPR’s cooperation with Baturin started in late 2005 in the Belgorod region, when Inteco-Agro had a conflict with Governor Yevgeny Savchenko. Inteco covered the LDPR’s campaign costs for the Belgorod regional legislature election, and in effect, this became an anti-Savchenko campaign. The party’s federal politicians visited Belgorod to campaign against Savchenko: Zhirinovsky, Mitrofanov, and LDPR candidate list addition Dima Bilan (produced by Baturin’s wife, Yana Rudkovskaya).

Boris Makarenko maintains that despite the loss of a key figure like Mitrofanov, there’s no need to be concerned about the LDPR’s fate. Makarenko told Novye Izvestia: “Only one person matters in the LDPR, and his name is Vladimir Volfovich Zhirinovsky – he’s the one people vote for. We have no reason to believe that Zhirinovsky’s career has come to an end. His party has a very good chance of crossing the 7% threshold.”

Alexei Grazhdankin from the Levada Center polling agency told Vedomosti that the public identifies the LDPR with Zhirinovsky, so the departure of any other politician won’t affect the party’s popularity. The LDPR’s support rating has been falling over the past six months: the Levada Center’s polls show it dropping from 11% in May to 7% in August (as a percentage of respondents who intend to vote); but in Grazhdankin’s view, this is probably due to the fact that recent political drama has centered on relations between United Russia and Just Russia.

Andrei Ryabov, Expert Council member at the Carnegie Moscow Center, maintains that Zhirinovsky “has tired of the role we have grown accustomed to seeing him play over the past 16 years, and may wish to change his job description after this election – he’ll probably run for president, if asked to do so.” Ryabov also told Polit.ru: “The Kremlin isn’t as interested as it used to be in having the LDPR in the Duma.” The Kremlin once needed the LDPR to fight a strong communist and pro-communist opposition; but these days both United Russia and Just Russia have plenty of lawmakers who focus on patriotic rhetoric, so demand for the LDPR is clearly declining. According to Ryabov, “the combination of these two factors is what’s making the party’s position extremely unstable.” Ryabov doesn’t rule out the possibility of some kind of staged performance being played out, “with an Insulted Father-Teacher and a Guilty Pupil, but everything actually being pre-arranged and no secret to anyone.”

In an interview with Gazeta, political analyst Igor Bunin emphasized that this trend – people quitting the LDPR – may indicate that the Kremlin is working on another project: namely, a three-party Duma scenario. The Duma would include only United Russia, Just Russia, and the Communist Party.

But Andrei Ryabov maintains that the question of whether the LDPR will make it into the Duma still remains undecided. Ryabov told Polit.ru: “According to some polling agencies, there have been alarming signs already. I think it still hasn’t been decided whether the LDPR will get into the Duma. Propagandists close to the Kremlin administration are predicting 4% of the vote for the LDPR. On the other hand, Kremlin administration official Alexander Kharichev told the Central Electoral Commission that the LDPR is among the parties that are over the 7% threshold.”

Journalists and experts also disagree on whether Just Russia has made an advantageous acquisition in recruiting Mitrofanov.

Polit.ru maintains that Mitrofanov’s change of orientation is a stroke of luck for Just Russia, which has suffered from “a shortage of high-status faces” ever since its inception. To borrow a phrase from Gennadi Zyuganov, “the face of an ill-shaven man” – Sergei Mironov – isn’t the best form of campaign advertising, and the priority for party managers is to collect some recognizable faces.

Valery Fedorov, general director of the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), told Kommersant that Mitrofanov, known for a whole string of controversial projects and his love of society parties, “would be viewed as a dubious character by Just Russia’s basic electorate – pensioners.” On the other hand, if Just Russia has decided to seek “additional voter niches,” Fedorov is prepared to regard Mitrofanov’s arrival as Just Russia’s “first step” toward “attracting younger voters” who used to vote for the LDPR.

Gazeta.ru maintains that Mitrofanov’s move to Just Russia and his stated reasons for that move offer a glimpse of the future for political parties in Russia, if the current system of governance persists. According to Gazeta.ru, Just Russia leader Sergei Mironov has made one obvious and very accurate comment about late-Putin-era Russia: “The time of the old leader-centric parties is rapidly drawing to a close.”

Gazeta.ru points out that only the president, remaining above all parties, can be a leader in the present-day system; the parties are relegated to servicing the president and his inner circle.

Mitrofanov himself has said that we are moving toward a two-party system: “In future, Just Russia will be the Muscovite party and United Russia will be the St. Petersburg party.” Moreover, both Mironov and Mitrofanov called on the Communist Party and the LDPR to become part of the new two-party system – by merging into Just Russia, presumably.

Gazeta.ru notes that in contrast to natural democratic systems, Russia’s system is not one where parties form a government on the basis of elections; instead, the executive branch selects and shapes parties that are granted the right to exist and perform certain technical functions. In other words, parties lack what ought to be their main feature: an ideological component, with coherent positions on specific issues of interest to voters.

According to Gazeta.ru, the new post-Putin party construct should preferably include the interests of rival Kremlin factions. At present, these factions are able to remain outside parties, taking advantage of the personal shelter provided by a popular head of state; but if his successor is less influential, these parties – along with prosecutors and judges – may be used as instruments in covert political power-struggles.

In any event, as Gazeta.ru concludes, this much is certain: Russia needs to develop some real parties with real ideological content – upholding the interests of various social groups, not only the bureaucracy and tycoons intent on self-preservation. Othewise, we shall continue to have an effectively party-less political system – no matter how many parties are represented in parliament or registered with the Justice Ministry.

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