So it’s exactly a year until the next Duma elections. Only a year, as the media points out. The shortage of time is already becoming perceptible.

The elections will take place on the second Sunday of next December; and according to the law, the only parties which can take part are those which have managed to obtain registration by December 14 this year. The Vremya MN newspaper reports that 47 parties have secured the Justice Ministry’s seal of approval. Fifteen of them were registered within the last three months, and these parties probably won’t have time to set up their regional branch network and convene the necessary congresses by next autumn. In any case, only 18 parties have successfully gone through the “secondary registration” process – setting up branches in over half of Russia’s regions.

That is why Central Election Commission chairman Alexander Veshnyakov has expressed the opinion that no more than 30 parties are likely to take part in the elections; probably far fewer.

It appears that those parties which aren’t fortunate enough in this election year will have to forget about elections permanently. First of all, the Duma entry barrier will be raised from 5% of the vote to 7% in 2007. Secondly, parties which have a faction in parliament will receive many benefits. Of course, they will gain the opportunity to increase their political weight. Moreover, the state will provide funding for them over the next four years. And most importantly, in the 2007 elections they will not be required to collect signatures in support of the candidates they nominate.

According to opinion polls (cited in Slovo weekly), at present the United Russia party (29% of respondents) and the Communist Party (27%) are in the lead. The Union of Right Forces may count on getting 10% of the vote, with 9% going to Yabloko and 5% to the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia.

Among the parties which are unlikely to surmount the 5% of the vote barrier are Gennady Seleznev’s Renaissance of Russia party, the Democratic Party led by Mikhail Prusak, the Liberal Russia party (now embroiled in a split as a result of Boris Berezovsky’s conflict with Sergei Yushenkov and Viktor Pokhmelkin), and many others.

According to Vremya MN, the Kremlin’s long-cherished goal – to reduce the number of parties in the lower house to a minimum – will be served by United Russia getting as many votes as possible. Then it will enter the Duma, followed by the Communists with their stable electorate, and probably one more party.

Vremya MN says: “That is why the law on political parties was passed – to reduce the number of political organizations in Russia to a minimum; therefore, the Justice Ministry will be very scrupulous in checking the composition and activity of all the parties it inspects in the near future.”

For the pro-government party – which United Russia considers itself to be – nothing is impossible: the centrists are counting on improving their results substantially in the next elections. At present, the Unity faction in the Duma has 83 members; the Communist faction has 85; the People’s Deputy faction has 55; Fatherland – All Russia has 49; Russian Regions has 47; the Agrarians have 43; the Union of Right Forces has 32; Yabloko has 17; and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia has 12. And 21 Duma members do not belong to any faction. (Figures cited in the Slovo weekly.)

So there is some room for maneuvering. Raising the entry barrier (a United Russia proposal) from 5% to 7%, even if this is done in 2007, serves as a signal for potential recruits from other parties: “Don’t leave it too late!”

Another maneuver from United Russia is the anticipated lifting of the ban on political party membership for Category A state officials: that is, federal ministers. Slovo says: “Naturally, most of them will flock to United Russia, demonstrating their loyalty to the president – and dragging their subordinates with them.”

Profil magazine predicts a new political fashion trend in Russia: “We will see a mass call-up of senior state officials – ministers and regional leaders – into political parties. Thus, the present elite intends to reject one of the Yeltsin era’s most important political principles: no party membership among the state apparatus.”

Andrei Ryabov, a member of the Carnegie Center’s research council, says that despite United Russia’s “entirely transparent interest” in this project, rejecting it on those grounds would be short-sighted. Ryabov says that in future, political parties will make Russian politics more open and more accountable to the citizenry: “At least, human civilization has thus far failed to invent any more effective channels than political parties for connecting society and the state.”

However, it will be almost impossible to create an effective party system if parties are stripped of one of their most important functions: the opportunity to take part in shaping the executive branch. Ryabov says that official party alignment for senior state officials will be “the first step in this direction, a very important step”. Federal ministers who are members of political parties would be accountable “not only to the industrial or financial group which has sent them into government, but also to the relevant party – and it is to be hoped that the party represents the interests of a large number of citizens”. And then, perhaps, it will be more difficult for the Cabinet to make decisions which are in the interests of big business rather than society.

In a lengthy article containing a detailed analysis of the social situation and the public mood in Russia a year before the elections, Izvestia expresses the opinion that United Russia’s party-building – which has essentially replaced the previously-announced policy of promoting civil society in Russia – does have some positive aspects.

Izvestia says: “Sadly enough, this return to Brezhnevism could even be a step forward, compared to the present inertness of society. At least there will be one channel for bringing new blood into the political elite – through a party.”

The group of those at the top, revamped in the early 1990s (“only slightly”), has gradually become an entirely closed caste. Izvestia says that now there are far fewer “bridges” between those at the top and everyone else than there were even in the Brezhnev stagnation era.

Moreover, says Izvestia, one gets a strong impression from talking to members of the political elite: “They know nothing of what life is like for the 145 million ordinary citizens OF THIS COUNTRY, and they don’t want to know. Not in general, and not in detail. The ‘natives’ don’t interest them at all.”

In that sense, the “political bosses” find campaign work with the electorate a complex task: “They have no ideological views. They have one ambition: to expand their control of spheres of influence, sectors of industry, and enterprises as much as possible. For their own benefit, not that of the nation.”

Hence, clan rivalry has long since lost any ideological nature, becoming a matter of “purely specific agreements”: some financial channels being exchanged for others, or privatization of companies in someone’s favor being exchanged for election victories in “some financially capacious region”.

Not surprisingly, according to Public Opinion Foundation poll results (published in Izvestia), only 14% of respondents now consider that a return to power by the Communists would change their lives for the worse. But 25% (a quarter!) consider that their lives might even improve as a result, while 36% say that nothing would really change as a result of an alteration in the political agenda.

Apparently, this political apathy is tangentially reflected in the controversial incident of a proposed alliance between irreconcilable extremes: the Communist Party and Boris Berezovsky. Although Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov has publicly categorically denied the possiblity of such an alliance, Alexander Prokhanov, chief editor of the radical left newspaper Zavtra – who set this game in motion – claims that “political cooperation” has already begun. According to Prokhanov, the left opposition is thus expropriating Berezovsky’s money “through a complex political maneuver”.

The Slovo weekly reports that Boris Berezovsky himself is convinced that “a Communist opposition is better than no opposition at all”. And despite all its problems in recent years, the Communist Party still retains a stable electorate.

Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration, told “Business Week” in an interview (translation published in the Patriot newspaper): “In future, the left wing is bound to win. The only question is which left wing, and when.” He added: “It would be better for this not to happen too soon, because the left wing in Russia is changing very slowly.”

The presidential administration is closely monitoring opinion polls and the results of the political activity of various parties.

Surkov gave a straightforward reply when asked what the Kremlin thought of action taken by the Going Together movement against writer Vladimir Sorokin: “Going Together’s campaign to destroy his books is repulsive. But on November 7 last year, Yakimenko (Vasily Yakimenko, leader of Going Together – editor’s note) rallied 12,000 people in support of Putin. The Communists could only manage 8,000 people for their rally. The government needs support from the streets.”

And yet, as Slovo says, “it appears that money rather than ideas or policies will determine the nature of the next election campaign”. This time, the campaign spending limit for single-mandate deputies will be raised to 6 million rubles, while electoral blocs will have a limit of 250 million rubles. This, says Slovo, the Duma elections alone will cost the nation 3.5 billion rubles. As we shall see, this is by no means the final figure.

The Argumenty i Fakty weekly reports that no decision has yet been made on which state agency will be used as the foundation – according to Russian tradition – for the “pro-government party’s” election campaign.

In 1999, the Emergencies Ministry played this role – headed by Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu. Now the situation has changed, though Shoigu himself remains popular.

Public Opinion Foundation polls indicate that if the presidential election had been held last Sunday, 53% of respondents would have voted for Vladimir Putin, 13% for Gennady Zyuganov, 5% for Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and 2% for Sergei Shoigu.

However, Shoigu himself – judging by his recent interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta – is somewhat nervous about his own popularity: “I really wish that no opinion polls would mention me any more! Why do I, a federal minister, need a political popularity rating? Why am I even included in such a poll, if I have no intention of running for office? Why? In order to make things more exciting?”

It would seem that behind this outburst is some fairly negative experience of political activity. Shoigu complains: “Political competition ought to be political competition, rather than a brawl accompanied by airing dirty laundry in public and peering into people’s bedrooms.”

Shoigu now wants to distance himself from public politics and focus on his professional duties: “It’s cleaner in our profession.”

One way or another, the Kremlin’s main support in the next elections will be Boris Gryzlov, interior minister and essentially the leader of United Russia.

Argumenty i Fakty says: “The interior minister is managing to cope with these two roles, and everyone is happy. But the election campaign will require a lot of work. So Gryzlov may soon be left with his party activist role alone.”

According to the sources of Vremya Novostei, “Gryzlov may indeed resign as interior minister next year, but there is an 80% chance of this happening in autumn rather than spring”; by then, Gryzlov, as chairman of the political council of United Russia, will have to concentrate on preparations for the Duma elections.

However, as Nezavisimaya Gazeta points out, the objectives set for “Russia’s leading party” are so ambitious that it can’t get by without a radical increase in funding.

At a meeting in the Kremlin, United Russia leaders were told that they have to win no fewer than 300 Duma seats – that is, they have to secure a constitutional majority.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta explains that this would enable the centrists to pass whatever laws the Kremlin requires, and even make it possible to amend the Constitution. According to the sources of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, this is precisely the agenda being planned for Vladimir Putin’s second term in office.

Kommersant-Vlast explains that the Kremlin faction insisting on “heightened social obligations” for United Russia is the “St. Petersburg group”, led by Igor Sechin, head of the president’s secretariat.

But the “Yeltsin people” (the “Voloshin hierarchy” – Alexander Voloshin, his deputy Vladislav Surkov, and their associates) are more cautious in their demands, assuming that the Duma will remain much as it is. One senior Kremlin official said: “It would be fine for United Russia to win a few more seats, and for the Communists to lose a few.” He also said that the Kremlin is satisfied with the present number of right-wing Duma members.

Nevertheless, the process of collecting campaign funding for United Russia has already begun. There has been a series of meetings in the Kremlin with business leaders; and Nezavisimaya Gazeta says that the St. Petersburg people played “bad cop” at these meetings, while the “Yeltsin’s family” people were the “good cops”. The former “openly demand money for the party from business leaders; and when the business leaders turn to the good cops to complain about extortion, the latter say they do sympathize, but there’s no alternative – they’ll have to pay up.”

It is worth noting that according to the sources of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, substantial sums are being mentioned: it is planned to collect $300-500 million in total. In that way, each Duma seat won by United Russia would cost around $1 million.

Given that no more than 60 million of the 94 million Russian citizens entitled to vote are likely to turn out, while United Russia has been set the task of winning 40 million votes, this works out at around five dollars per vote. Nezavisimaya Gazeta notes that at the 1999 elections each vote cost around a dollar. In other words, the next election campaign is likely to be five times as costly.

The services of political consultants are also likely to become more expensive. Nezavisimaya Gazeta notes that such excessive funding might well be aimed at making it impossible for all of United Russia’s competitors to mount PR campaigns on the scale they have in the past: “After all, no other political party would be able to pay such exorbitant fees to political consultants.”

Kommersant-Vlast magazine draws the attention of its readers to another circumstance.

Until now, says Kommersant-Vlast, Putin’s relations with Yeltsin-era oligarchs have been quite civilized: “The president has required them to keep out of politics and pay their taxes.” In return, they got a guarantee that they would keep their assets. The oligarchs accepted these terms, though not with any considerable enthusiasm: “Especially since they had the Voloshin group looking after their interests in the Kremlin.”

However, the situation may change now: if United Russia can manage to live up to the ambitious intentions of the St. Peterburg team, the standing of the Yeltsin people may be destabilized.

By winning the majority in the lower house, United Russia would secure the political monopoly of the St. Peterburg team, including access to the president, control over law enforcement agencies, and the ability to pass the laws they want through the Duma – for example, laws concerning restructuring the natural monopolies.

Kommersant-Vlast says: “Obviously, in such a dangerous situation, even those oligarchs known for their loyalty to the Kremlin do not feel secure. To be on the safe side, they will invest in other political structures and parties in the hope of preventing the Kremlin from gaining a total monopoly in the future Duma.”

This could involve the Union of Right Forces, Yabloko, or regional party lists.

But Kommersant-Vlast considers it unlikely that any powerful oppositional movement could arise at the next elections, expressing the interests of all who are dissatisfied: “After all, the degree of discontent is not that high as yet.”

There is even more reason to doubt that the Union of Right Forces is capable of providing some tough competition for United Russia. The Novye Izvestia newspaper comments that the campaign to increase Boris Nemtsov’s popularity, which has continued for a number of years and cost no small amount of money, has not produced the desired results. According to polls done by the National Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), only 2.2% of respondents who vote for the Union of Right Forces would be prepared to vote for Nemtsov in a presidential election; but 72.7% of respondents who vote for the Union of Right Forces prefer Putin for president.

Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky is in a better position: a much higher proportion of Yabloko voters would vote for him in a presidential election.

Novye Izvestia concludes that the pro-Putin preferences of voters represent a significant restriction on the options of the Union of Right Forces: “Continuing to play the role of opposition, even in part, on specific issues could lose them a substantial number of supporters. If Putin publicly refuses to support them on any issue, the results of the next elections could turn out to be disastrous for the Union of Right Forces.”

According to the sources of Vedomosti, United Russia and the Union of Right Forces intend to release their election policy platforms later this week.

These have much in common: both parties support reducing the unified social tax, which will undoubtedly win them some support from the business sector.

Vedomosti notes that the Finance Ministry recently discussed the same idea, proposing to make up the lost revenue by raising taxes on oil extraction. United Russia’s policies also include that point, but it is presented diplomatically: a matter of “optimizing the rent rates for extraction of natural resources” while reducing taxes for secondary industry.

What’s more, United Russia is promising to establish a taxation system which would be “the most favorable in Europe” (not counting offshore zones).

Another priority for both the centrists and the right wing is securing the support of small business.

Vedomosti says that the remainder of the Union of Right Forces economic policies essentially repeat the points of the mid-range development program written by the Economic Development Ministry: raising the qualifications and salaries of public servans, reducing the number and personnel of state agencies, and so on.

The Union of Right Forces offers its own military reform plan: recruiting citizens of other CIS countries for contract service in the Russian military, promising them Russian citizenship in return.

Vedomosti says that all these ideas “are more likely to affect support for the Union of Right Forces among influential business lobbyists, rather than the number of votes the party gets”. Voters aren’t interested in policy platforms, as Union of Right Forces co-leader Irina Khakamada confirmed when she said: “An economic policy is a demonstration of intentions aimed at the political elite. At elections, voters don’t vote for policies.”

Dmitrii Oreshkin, head of the Merkator group, says in an article for Moskovskie Novosti that Russia still “lacks public demand for parties as a means of political representation for any kind of broad social interests”.

The only exception may be the Communist Party, which Oreshkin says “doesn’t express interests as such, but some other sort of emotion, more like social grievances”.

Most of the political parties do not intend to change their style or tactics for relations with voters in the lead-up to the next elections, preferring to work on improving their relations with “the hierarchy of governance”.

As a result, says Oreshkin, over the next year the new “pro-government party” will “take some urgent measures, increase its branch activity, formulate a plan, and report to the due authorities”. Unfortunately, voters are not among the authorities to whom the party reports.

Oreshkin says: “No matter what kind of pro-government party we try to create, we end up with the CPSU.”

As a consequence, voters are more and more reluctant to go to the polls. At regional elections, the number of votes cast “against all candidates” is consistently around 10-12%.

Oreshkin says: “More and more obviously, elections are changing from a means of communication between the state and society to a means for elite factions to settle scores with each other. Presidential envoys battle the regional leaders, regional leaders battle the oligarchs…” And the people remain silent, as usual.

“So how many will vote for the party of social grievances?”

Few are considering such a possibility at present: now, a year before the elections, it is more important to charm potential sponsors and the president, with his “Teflon approval rating”. Displays of warm affection for voters are best left for a time closer to voting day – so they won’t cool off.