Russia’s parties in a season of political timelessness: survival mode


A turbulent political season in Russia is closing with a sequence of party congresses. The leading players on the political stage need to count the wounds they sustained in the election campaigns, find a conclusive answer to the main question (who is to blame?), and decide where to go from here.

But according to the papers, answers to numerous painful questions are still not forthcoming. On the contrary, it might be said that last weekend’s congresses held by the Communist Party (CPRF) and Yabloko demonstrated the evident exhaustion of Russia’s current “multi-party” system.

The Communists went about preparing for their latest congress in a surprising way. The formerly consolidated and unanimous CPRF departed from its historical traditions this time, with a stunt worthy of some party like Liberal Russia. The Communists permitted themselves to split in two.

First there were two plenums of the CPRF Central Committee, at which supporters and opponents of Gennadi Zyuganov hurled the full force of reciprocal criticism at each other – the critical energy they used to direct at the authorities and their “anti-people policies.” As a result of this double act, the CPRF found itself with two leaders: Zyuganov, the CPRF’s leader for many years, acquired an alternative – Governor Vladimir Tikhonov of the Ivanovo region, supported by Zyuganov’s long-time opponent Gennadi Semigin (expelled from the CPRF not too long ago for being a splitter).

This was followed by two CPRF congresses – both held in rather unusual conditions.

Zyuganov’s supporters gathered at the Izmailovsky Concert Hall, as planned. The unusual conditions they faced entailed a total absence of electric lights. As the media reported, Zyuganov was even forced to read his report by the light of three flashlights held by his aide.

Of course, none of the Communists believed all this was due to a simple breakdown at an electrical sub-station – they saw the malice of “Semigin’s crowd” and “the hand of the Kremlin” in these events.

The doors of this congress were wide open to the press. Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported that the emergency circumstances did not detract from the impact of Zyuganov’s speech: “The leader’s voice was firmer than ever. His words fell into the darkness like iron weights.”

Zyuganov described the Putin regime as “Bonapartist” and accused it of “eliminating the last achievements of socialism”; he accused his own intra-party rivals of aiming to serve that regime by destroying Russia’s only truly oppositional political party.

Then the new Central Committee members were elected, Tikhonov the usurper was expelled from the party, and Comrade Zyuganov’s powers were re-affirmed.

Meanwhile, according to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Zyuganov’s opponents were meeting in an atmosphere of conspiracy aboard a riverboat on the Moscow River. A Nezavisimaya Gazeta source said that unlike Zyuganov’s congress, this one was fairly calm. No one really abused Zyuganov, and one participant in the “floating congress” even said that Zyuganov has already “made his mark in history” and might still be useful to the party. But this congress did not re-elect Zyuganov when it voted on new Central Committee members.

Since the numbers of those present at both congresses were scrupulously counted (under the circumstances, getting a quorum was a priority), the final decision on which of the two congresses was the real one will be up to the Justice Ministry. Newspaper reports say that Justice Ministry representatives attended both congresses.

The Vedomosti newspaper approached some professional political consultants for comments on these events. One of them explained that Semigin’s “corporate takeover” move against “red director” Zyuganov used the standard methods developed in numerous cases of redistribution of property: holding a parallel “shareholder meeting” and electing a duplicate “board of directors.” Following the logic of developments, the battle for the CPRF “brand-name” should now move to the courts, where both sides will argue that their congresses were legitimate.

Alexei Makarkin from the Political Techniques Center noted that similar squabbles for control of political brand-names have happened in Russia before: the rights to the above-mentioned Liberal Russia party were disputed, as well as the Motherland (Rodina) party. Empirical evidence shows that the winner in such power-struggles is the side supported by the presidential administration. Makarkin pointed out that in this case, both sides are accusing each other of having links with the Kremlin.

And “a source close to the presidential administration” even admitted to Vedomosti that Semigin is indeed getting some help – but the aim is to weaken the CPRF still further, rather than to give Semigin control of the party.

The Novye Izvestia newspaper says: “Even the most unbiased observer is getting the impression that the split in the CPRF is a staged performance, scripted in advance but crudely presented nonetheless.”

One question arises: why should the Kremlin (“and what other force in Russia is still capable of staging such performances?”) seek to topple Zyuganov, who “has been as loyal to both of the ‘anti-people’ presidents as it’s possible for an opposition party leader to be?”

Novye Izvestia sees a clue in the fact that all the CPRF’s problems have arisen in parallel with the YUKOS events: “It seems the target is not the CPRF leader at all, but this structure itself.”

The regime was indeed alarmed last year at YUKOS’s intentions to “acquire” Russia’s leading political brand-name, the CPRF. And even now that the regime’s efforts have made Russia’s business elite “lose any desire to dabble in politics” for a long time to come, the CPRF may present some sort of potential threat. “What if some big-shots from abroad (with Russian roots) decide to invest in the Communists?”

As Novye Izvestia puts it, this is precisely why the CPRF will be “broken down completely”: in order to build on its ruins a new opposition, “hard-line” but entirely dependent on the Kremlin.

A currently-fashionable political analyst, Stanislav Belkovsky, says in Novye Izvestia that Gennadi Zyuganov was virtually ideal as a partner for the Kremlin: “He did very well at the task of pacifying the protest vote – and for that reason alone, he should have remained the one and only.”

But in place of one practically tame Communist Party, the Kremlin now has two: and they will have to “compete in their level of radicalism.” In Belkovsky’s opinion, the Kremlin team has good tactics, but it’s poor at strategy. “This situation could rebound on them as soon as six months from now, when yet another review of political forces begins to test their readiness for the next federal elections.” What’s more, the two left-wing parties may yet be joined by a third leftist structure, even more radical.

According to the sources of the Moskovskie Novosti weekly, efforts to “undermine” the CPRF (no wonder the radical left paper Zavtra called Semigin “the Kremlin’s mole”) were directed by Konstantin Kostin, “a political consultant on the Kremlin’s payroll.” And the project was supervised by Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration.

What’s more, according to Alexei Kondaurov (Duma member, CPRF faction), the objective was extremely difficult: “Not getting rid of Zyuganov, but fragmenting the party” – so that it would go into the next parliamentary elections “demoralized and destroyed from within.”

Moskovskie Novosti acknowledges the “refined approach of the Kremlin’s political plotters,” saying: “Carrying out an anti-Zyuganov campaign in a way that ensures the target of attack won’t be hurt, but his party will sustain maximal damage – that is an admirable effort.”

Then again, all this refers to the election campaign period – and back then Zyuganov succeeded in convincing the Kremlin, once again, that he was still useful: the election boycott proposed by the young Communists did not happen. But even now, according to Moskovskie Novosti, not all is lost for the CPRF’s long-time leader: “The Kremlin needs Gennadi Zyuganov. As a generator of discontent among the CPRF’s rank and file and some of the party leaders. As an irritant for the public, which is bored with this ‘inflexible Communist’ – and besides, he comes across as all too flexible. And as a symbol of the impending doom of the CPRF, whose place in the pro-state patriotism niche has been allocated by the Kremlin to the Motherland party.”

Dmitri Orlov, general director of the Political and Economic Communications Agency, says in Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal: “It is advantageous for the Kremlin to have the CPRF controlled by functionaries rather than charismatic leaders like Zyuganov. This will shrink the CPRF’s electorate down to the core voters.” According to Orlov, this is exactly what the regime is doing now – and Gennadi Semigin is helping it.

Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Strategic Studies Center, agrees with Orlov: “In order to retain control of the situation, the Kremlin needs to intervene in the affairs of political parties all the time.” At present, the Kremlin is entirely satisfied with a configuration involving the Motherland party together with a weakened CPRF. But as the next elections approach, a new and more effective project may become necessary. Semigin is hoping that this project will be his new movement – Patriots of Russia. It includes over 12 parties; among them are the Russia’s Renaissance party, led by Gennadi Seleznev (who was expelled from the CPRF), and the Party of Pensioners.

But other variations are also possible: according to Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal, the Kremlin “makes skillful use of the fact that the existing left-wing parties are incapable of consolidating the protest vote.” Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal says that for the time being, efforts to weaken the CPRF and push it out to the political backwaters have only one goal: to prevent the CPRF from aspiring to the role of the opposition within the system.

As Profil magazine reports, the Kremlin is working hard on various options for a new system of party politics. “It doesn’t like the old parties, but the new ones aren’t coming together” – despite the fact that the presidential administration, in Andrei Piontkovsky’s words, “has called a tender for both the right wing and the left wing.”

Profil says that the Union of Right Forces (URF) still hasn’t managed to decide “which of its members is the most charismatic and attractive (in terms of attracting votes and donations from business).”

At last week’s URF congress, the party failed once again to choose any new leaders. “In other words, its de facto leaders are still the same people who lost the Duma elections so badly – Anatoly Chubais, Boris Nemtsov, Yegor Gaidar, and so on.”

The URF’s stance on the regime also remains contradictory. On the one hand, it would be odd to describe the party as being in opposition to the Kremlin when one of its unofficial leaders is Anatoly Chubais, known for his loyalty to the president. On the other hand, the party has not made a decision to merge with United Russia (although some URF members insisted before the congress that this would happen).

Meanwhile, the hopes of right-wing intellectuals for a merger of the URF and Yabloko also seem to be doomed. At Yabloko’s congress last weekend, Grigori Yavlinsky’s supporters said that among the leading reasons for the party’s defeat in the Duma elections was that Yabloko failed to differentiate itself sufficiently from the URF.

The Gazeta newspaper quotes Yavlinsky as saying: “We are the only party which has consistently and resolutely called for oligarchic capitalism to be dismantled.”

According to Gazeta, Yabloko has been dogged by misfortunes beyond its control: the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky inevitably had an impact on the party’s election campaign. Gazeta reports that Yavlinsky had something to say on this topic at the congress – mysterious words, only comprehensible to those in the know: “Oligarchs don’t sponsor parties; they buy them. We are prepared to see some corruption within the party.” A Gazeta source from the bureau of Yabloko’s federal council provided the following explanation: “Yavlinsky is very much afraid of Khodorkovsky – he fears that once Khodorkovsky gets out of jail, he will take over the party.”

Indeed, it would be strange if others failed to make use of the commonly-accepted and reliable methods developed by the Kremlin in its work with Motherland and the CPRF.

Besides, as Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports, the congress has shown that a “worm of opposition” has already developed within Yabloko.

For the first time, Yavlinsky was not re-elected unopposed as party leader. He had a rival: Yuri Kuznetsov, head of the Sverdlovsk regional branch of Yabloko. Fifty-nine congress delegates voted for Kuznetsov; Nezavisimaya Gazeta emphasizes that despite Yavlinsky’s impressive win, this indicates that a quarter of regional branches are prepared to support opposition within the party.

What’s more, the congress gave official permission for factions to be created. Actually, Yabloko has always had two wings: a social-democrat wing and a liberal wing. And forming a proper faction requires the consent of 300 party members in each of 25 regions. All the same, the opposition considers that this decision signals some fundamental changes for Yabloko – until now, according to federal council member Anatoly Golov, the party has had “only one correct position – Yavlinsky’s position.”

But criticism of the leader, though it was fairly harsh, mostly remained confined to conversations in the hallways at the Yabloko congress. For example, former Duma member Alexei Zakharov told Gazeta: “We can’t win back voter confidence by taking an ambiguous stance. We can’t criticize the oligarchs while accepting their money at the same time. We can’t scream about the government acting against the people’s interests, as Yavlinsky’s deputy Sergei Mitrokhin does, while delegating another of Yavlinsky’s deputies, Sergei Artemiev, to work for the government.”

It’s worth noting that Sergei Artemiev was the only one of Yabloko’s four deputy leaders who encountered no criticism at all during the congress.

The analysts approached by Gazeta say that for the time being, the hesitant attempts by an intra-party opposition to wrest control of the party away from Yavlinsky will not succeed. Dmitri Orlov says that “Yavlinsky will keep the Yabloko brand-name for the next few years,” since the current leader is “the face of the party” for both the political elite and voters.

But the voters still aren’t being very kind to the democrats. According to poll results cited in the Russkii Kurier newspaper, 78% of respondents say they wouldn’t vote for Yabloko under any circumstances – and 85% say the same for the URF.

Profil magazine claims that practically all of Russia’s parties are currently going through a crisis. There is some danger that “we might find ourselves in a situation where the shapeless mass called United Russia fills the entire field of politics, with no potential rivals at all.”

And the Kremlin has no interest in seeing such a situation develop. That’s hardly surprising: a respectable democratic state needs to have at least a two-party system.

According to political analyst Alexei Makarkin, the Kremlin’s purposes might be ideally suited by “an imitation of the system used in post-war West Germany, with a center right party in power and a social-democrat party in opposition.”

And since it would only be an imitation, there were persistent rumors for some time in the political community about two wings splitting away from United Russia: a right wing and a left wing. The Kremlin would see this as “a safeguard against political radicalism” – Profil translates this to mean a form of insurance for United Russia against any rivals arising from the right or the left in the battle for power.

But according to Profil, this option was discarded fairly raidly: “What the Kremlin needs now is a mechanism for passing laws, rather than any political competition in parliament.” Indeed, it would be difficult to pass the unpopular reforms without unanimity in the parliamentary majority.

Yet the Kremlin also fears to support the old parties, considering that they are not sufficiently under its control.

Novaya Gazeta points out that despite all their differences, the URF, Yabloko, and the CPRF had a common enemy during the election campaign: the government. None of the parties ventured to declare that everything that’s happening in Russia is happening according to the president’s will: “Putin was bracketed out.” For example, though Yabloko dared to remind Putin that he “ought to be more careful with civil liberties,” it immediately compensated for this criticism by praising Russia’s foreign policy.

This is precisely what is wrong with the democratic parties, according to leading human rights activist Sergei Kovalev: he sees the cause of their current problems in the fact that they have failed to live up to the expectations of their voters, who want to see a real liberal opposition – “not an imitation, a mockery of an opposition.”

As Kovalev says in Novye Izvestia, liberal voters “will never support a party which says that although the regime is making a few mistakes in domestic policy, it’s doing everything right in foreign policy – siding with Western civilization and upholding European values.” According to Kovalev, such a combination is simply impossible: “The regime cannot uphold European values while it controls the television networks and a Basmannyi-style court system, and builds the kind of state that doesn’t serve the citizenry, but forces the citizenry to serve the state.” Under the circumstances, an opposition must strive to prevent the rebirth of a police state – “instead of categorizing some of the regime’s actions as acceptable and desirable and others as not entirely successful.”

Kovalev does not believe that Yabloko or the URF are capable of creating such an opposition – “seriously, rather than at the level of idle talk.”

But at the Duma elections, says Kovalev, some part of society was prepared to support opposition ideas: “not a very large part, but quite enough to get past the 5% threshold.” Now the democratic parties have lost those voters; they are either not voting at all or voting “against all candidates.”

In order to win back those voters, the leaders of oppositional democratic parties ought to say this: “Regardless of election results, we are going to fight the police state.” Simply because it is necessary to fight it. But Kovalev observes: “They don’t have the courage to do that. And voters take an appropriate view of them.”

This is especially true given that some “oppositionists” have admitted that there is a certain office in the Kremlin “where percentages of the vote are distributed at elections.” Can any of those who visit that office call themselves an opposition? The question is academic.

According to Novaya Gazeta, the prospects of existing opposition parties are now somewhat similar: they have all essentially moved into survival mode.

“Pieces are being snipped off” the CPRF all the time, and with the regime’s help they are turning into separate movements. Indeed, says Novaya Gazeta, the “pinks” headed by Gennadi Seleznev have already left the CPRF. And Sergei Glaziev has led the “patriots” away. Now, following the July congress, the CPRF risks being reduced to a party of pensioners.

For the time being, the Communists are using merciless purges to fight splitters – but this weapon is double-edged, and by the next elections the CPRF might simply “melt away.”

According to Novaya Gazeta, the URF “seems prepared to sacrifice its own existence as a party – the only goal it sets is ‘keeping its personnel in political turnover.'”

And Novaya Gazeta emphasizes that the URF doesn’t have too many options: it can either seek a buyer for the URF brand-name or try to attach itself to the Kremlin-backed United Russia party. The latter option would certainly involve losing face, even if the URF can form its own faction or coalition within United Russia.

As for Yabloko, despite all its efforts to stay afloat as a political force, it is coming to look less like a parliamentary party and more like a public movement. More precisely, according to Novaye Gazeta, it is acquiring the features of “a community of democratic analysts.”

On the other hand, now is the time when the political parties might have a new opportunity, says leading political analyst Andrei Ryabov in Gazeta. The impression is that all available territory in Russian politics has now been occupied by only one person – the president; but Ryabov says this impression is deceptive.

Ryabov says: “The impending social reforms signify the objective end of the previous era: a time when the citizenry, lulled by the stability it had suffered to gain, turned away from politics, focusing on private lives.” Those reforms will inevitably make all citizens think seriously about their own interests: “the issues which primarily have an impact on their own wallets and accustomed lifestyles.” One way or another, people will have to decide which of the currently active forces in politics offers the optimal model for protecting their interests.

As long as accustomed living conditions, based on a stable system of housing and utilities payments and social benefits, remained unchanged, the most progressive voters could permit themselves to indulge in “strategic ideas about Russia’s path in the forseeable historical future” or purely emotional responses to events in recent Russian history.

Meanwhile, says Ryabov, the parties were also engaged in an obvious simulation of politics, presenting themselves as “defending the workers” or “representing the whole stratum of property owners, from oligarchs to ordinary citizens with just enough land for a garden.” While heaping abuse on the regime in public, many parties actually cooperated with it in practice, doing deals regarding the boundaries of permitted opposition.

But this era, says Ryabov, has retreated into the past. Now the only parties with a chance of remaining on the political stage will be those capable of behaving like parties “in the rest of the civilized world”: upholding either the interests of groups which require social support, or the interests of property-owners – those who primarily rely on their own strength.

If the opportunity offered by the political situation is used, then Russia may indeed, in time, develop a two-party system – “like all civilized countries!”

“But having an opportunity is not the same as being able to take advantage of it,” says Ryabov.

Russia has proved the truth of those words many times in the course of its history.