THE GREAT PARTY GAME

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United Russia challenged by Sergei Mironov’s Just Russia party

With a year to go before the next parliamentary election, the Kremlin appears to have decided to get serious about organizing the party field. The actions of the authorities don’t seem to be strictly coordinated at the tactical level. This is demonstrated by the latest developments in party politics.


With a year to go before the next parliamentary election, the Kremlin appears to have decided to get serious about organizing the party field. In this context, however, when we say “the Kremlin,” it should be understood as meaning several decision-making centers. Thus, even if there is some sort of common strategy there, the actions of the authorities don’t seem to be strictly coordinated at the tactical level.

This is demonstrated by the latest developments in party politics. First there was the United Russia party’s congress, where highly optimistic attitudes reigned. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov lashed out at the government’s “liberal economics” bloc and Anatoly Chubais. Boris Gryzlov deliberately targeted United Russia’s chief rival: the Just Russia party, led by Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov. And then United Russia raised the question of changing to a system of electing Federation Council members. This may be described as a direct attack: United Russia’s administrative resources are so powerful that any such election might result in Mironov losing his Federation Council seat – and this, ideally, would end his political career. It should be noted that Rosoboroneksport (Russian Defense Exports) chief executive Sergei Chemezon joined the United Russia leadership during the congress – although in theory, it would seem more logical for him to choose Just Russia.

As it turns out, there’s no need to write off Mironov just yet. The first sign of this came at the congress, when Vladimir Yakunin declined an invitation to join the United Russia leadership along with Chemezov. Yakunin, head of Russian Railroads, is a member of President Putin’s inner circle. He had been expected to accept the invitation. And some even more intriguing events followed a few days later, when President Putin met with the leaders of several political parties.

Note that this “new format” meeting was United Russia’s idea, and the topic was fighting extremism. But Mironov, whose speech followed that of President Putin, didn’t dwell on the official topic for long; he shifted abruptly to discussing the role of the regions in Russia, with an elegant segue into the topic of electing Federation Council members. In other words, United Russia received a fairly harsh response, directly in front of President Putin, the supreme arbiter. And Putin’s comment on Mironov’s speech was ambivalent: “If you feel that some additional steps should be taken in this drection, let’s think about it together.” Gryzlov, who spoke next, evaded making any reply to Mironov; his speech was entirely focused on fighting extremism. Experts disagree on why Gryzlov declined to respond; perhaps he was just deterred by the suddenness of Mironov’s demarche, or didn’t want to depart from the text of his prepared speech. One way or another, Mironov clearly won this round.

A far more interesting question is the extent to which Mironov’s status as “the president’s friend” will help him in the upcoming elections – including the regional legislature elections in March. It’s already apparent that the battle over administrative resources will take priority in both the March elections and the Duma campaign in November. So far, United Russia retains all the advantages, and it isn’t entirely clear how Mironov intends to convert the aces in his hand. Besides, United Russia also has a crushing advantage in media resources – and to all appearances, Mironov is likely to feel the full effects of this very soon.

Actually, all the abovementioned points are still in the realm of tactics. As for strategy, this involves constructing a new party configuration in which it’s “everyone for himself” – especially since the opposition hasn’t been idle either. Even the pacified Communists have been grumbling of late, and the unification meeting held by the Congress of Russian Communities on December 9 could well lead to additional headaches for many other players, including parties “within the system.”

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