UNITED RUSSIA’S GRIP

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United Russia seeks more powers – but can it become a real ruling party?

Georgy Satarov, head of the InDem Foundation: “There’s no point in complaining to United Russia about any of the regional leaders or ministers it nominates, because the party doesn’t really make the decisions. It’s ridiculous to compare United Russia to ruling parties in Europe.”


There were no sensational developments at the United Russia party’s Krasnoyarsk congress on November 26. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, a member of the party’s supreme council, gave the government some fatherly criticism. Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov, also a supreme council member, defended the government as best he could. The congress talked of the national projects, the demographic situation, developing Siberia and the Russian Far East. However, as one of the delegates told us, the party didn’t manage to adopt its final resolution – it was considered toothless.

So what kind of changes are happening in United Russia? Its new policy can be summed up as follows: “Give us more powers!” United Russia has revealed its appetites on several occasions recently. First, the Duma discussed giving the winning parties in regional legislature elections the right to suggest regional leader candidates to the president. Analysts interpreted this as a stronger role for United Russia in the regions, where it ususally wins elections. Of course, President Putin could reject United Russia’s candidates, but that would place him in an awkward position; after all, he was the one who proposed party affiliation for regional leaders. Sensing that their careers will now depend on United Russia, incumbent regional leaders started applying for party membership en masse. Applications have even come in from Yegor Stroyev, long-time governor of the Orel region, and Governor Konstantin Titov of Samara, who headed the Social-Democratic Party until recently.

Not even pausing to digest the Kremlin’s first gift, United Russia went after something bigger. Deputy Duma Speaker Oleg Morozov pulled a new bill out of his sleeve: proposing that the winning party in the federal Duma elections should have the right to suggest its own prime minister candidate to the president. The “winning party” is United Russia, of course. The public is being told that giving the party more powers will enable it to be accountable to the people, and hold its high-ranking members accountable for the government’s performance.

But there are some doubts about this argument. First of all, what’s stopping United Russia from taking responsibility right now? Its members already include a deputy prime minister, several ministers, and over 60 regional leaders. United Russia has long controlled the Duma; unlike their predecessors, they can’t use the excuse that the “damn Communists in the Duma” are preventing good legislation from being passed. United Russia would seem to have every advantage. So why has Russia seen the “anti-people” law on monetizing benefits, and the “greedy” law on compulsory auto insurance, and the frightening reforms to education, housing and utilities, and so on?

Secondly, how does United Russia plan to hold regional leaders accountable? Will it complain to the Kremlin about its incompetent or corrupt comrades, so the Father Tsar can drive out these traitors? Will they be expelled from the party? Back in the Soviet era, expulsion from the CPSU was the most dreadful punishment for any official – but the prospect is unlikely to scare anyone now.

But things wouldn’t even go that far, says Sergei Mitrokhin, deputy leader of the Yabloko party: “The only reason for expulsion from United Russia is disloyalty. That party doesn’t fear the people’s wrath, because it now has a ‘fire-extinguisher’ full of petrodollars.”

Georgy Satarov, head of the InDem Foundation: “There’s no point in complaining to United Russia about any of the regional leaders or ministers it nominates, because the party doesn’t really make the decisions. It’s ridiculous to compare United Russia to ruling parties in Europe, which form governments and are held accountable for them.”

The difference, according to political analysts, is that European countries have powerful oppositions alongside their ruling parties, keeping the latter on their toes. But the opposition in Russia is politically insignificant these days. And in the absence of external oversight, no internal politburo can make United Russia really effective.

A source in United Russia gave us the following explanation for the party’s growing appetites: it needs the additional powers in order to deal with the Year 2008 problem. “In effect, the Kremlin is implementing its own version of the party-based government model proposed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky. After United Russia wins the Duma elections in 2007, it will suggest a prime minister candidate. That prime minister’s name will be Vladimir Putin, and the president will be… Well, it won’t matter who he is.”

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