Who will remain in politics?


“The authorities have about eight more months to create an enemy for the election campaign,” said Sergei Kurginian, prominent political analyst and president of the Experimental Creative Center, at the latest meeting of the “Lottery 2007: Who will remain in politics?” discussion club.

In Kurginian’s opinion, the Kremlin finds the cautious Mikhail Kasyanov a “boring” opponent, so “they’ll have to think up somebody else.” (Quote taken from the Vremya Novostei newspaper.)

Since Dmitri Rogozin resigned as leader of the Motherland (Rodina) party, the problem of seeking a chief opponent for the United Russia party and the official policy course it embodies is indeed becoming urgent.

Rogozin announced his intention to quit all leadership posts on the eve of Motherland’s sixth congress, at which the party’s chief financial backer, Alexander Babakov, became its new leader.

Thus, as Vremya Novostei notes, “the political project called Motherland, invented by the Kremlin in 2003 as an alternative to the Communist Party (CPRF), has essentially been wound up.”

Vremya Novostei reports that delegates at the party congress were making “skeptical comments to the effect that a party with a stated aim of fighting oligarchs really shouldn’t have a tycoon as its leader.”

Political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky says something similar in Komsomolskaya Pravda: “Babikov is primarily an entrepreneur, and under his leadership Motherland will become an object in games played by the party and the bureaucracy, aimed at furthering his business interests.”

But Babakov denies predictions that Motherland will become more dependent on the Kremlin. He told the Gazeta newspaper: “Don’t tell me that I have business interests and I’m always vulnerable to pressure because of them. I don’t have any business interests! I’m a member of parliament!”

But a Gazeta source among Rogozin’s associates maintains that Babakov hasn’t parted with his business interests entirely: “He sold off all his assets in Russia – hotels, terminals at Novorossiisk port, and so on – but he’s invested in Ukraine and other countries.”

Gazeta goes on to say that Babakov is chairman of the observer council at TempBank, which is said to be involved in sponsoring the TsSKA Club. Moreover, he’s participated in privatizing the Savings Bank of Latvia and establishing control of the Ventspils oil terminal. According the Swiss register of companies in 2001, Babakov was among the leaders of Iwenta SA (Zurich cantonment). The same register indicated that he held Israeli citizenship.

Babakov assured the Motherland congress that the party’s policy positions will remain unchanged. He did not comment on Rogozin’s resignation.

Motherland’s new leader noted that his party disagrees with the Kremlin on many issues. “But we are not, and should not be, an irreconcilable opposition,” the Kommersant newspaper quotes him as saying. “Our criticism should be constructive, and as we pursue our goals we should maintain a dialogue with the authorities, within reasonable limits.”

According to Kommersant, this rather vague statement was supported in an even more mysterious speech by Yuri Sokolov, Motherland’s policy council secretary, who emphasized that Motherland “has fulfilled its commitments and is now waiting for commitments to be fulfilled” – without offering any details.

Kommersant offers the following explanation: “Thus, rapidly and without any unnecessary fuss, Motherland has fulfilled the chief condition set by the Kremlin: Dmitri Rogozin’s departure from all leadership posts within the party.”

Then again, the abovementioned “source among Rogozin’s associates” told Gazeta authoritatively that “Babakov is just as ambitious as our previous leader” and Motherland is likely to retain its opposition fervor, which is still capable of “causing problems for the Kremlin.”

Nevertheless, Boris Makarenko, an analyst from the Political Techniques Center, told Komsomolskaya Pravda that the leadership of “Babakov, who is not a public politician,” will have a negative impact on Motherland’s brand-name. Makarenko predicts that Motherland faces “a painful but inevitable drift from militant patriotism to soft-shelled liberal social-democracy.”

In that event, the party risks losing supporters and failing to reach its end goal: participation in the Duma election of 2007.

Komosomolskaya Pravda says: “Having replaced Rogozin the showman with Babakov the low-profile businessman, Motherland could fade rapidly into the shadows. And it would probably never come back.”

“He’ll be back” – that was the Vedomosti newspaper’s headline for its article about Rogozin’s departure.

Vedomosti says: “It has been confirmed that Rogozin is a politician who’s independent enough to play a game that hasn’t been approved by his Kremlin curators, although not strong enough to continue it. But the first point is important.”

Vedomosti emphasizes that the removal of Rogozin is evidence that “his defiance of the Kremlin was not a trick or a cunning plan to mobilize the protest vote.” And even if Motherland did start out as a “puppet creation,” it’s now clear that “it was seriously trying to become a living thing and break its strings.”

Yet it failed: “The young party has now remembered its origins and its place in politics – but it does deserve praise for boldness, at least.”

Many are now arguing that Rogozin’s political career is over, says Vedomosti: “His nationalism does not please the Kremlin these days, and his voluntary resignation devalues his charisma.” All the same, there’s also the other side of the coin: “There aren’t very many charismatic politicians left, and Rogozin has never retracted his political views. If there’s a demand for him, he’ll get back in shape.”

Obviously, some other party will attempt to fill the niche vacated by Motherland, says Vedomosti. This might be the CPRF – the party Rogozin was initially mobilized to fight. Yet it isn’t clear which politician the Kremlin finds more useful and manageable: CPRF leader Gennadi Zyuganov or Rogozin.

At the end of the article, quoting “Kremlin sources,” Vedomosti reports that when Rogozin agreed to step down, he allegedly “asked to be permitted to return at a time closer to the election.”

It’s unknown whether he was given any guarantees: “But he made a peaceful exit, without slamming the door behind him.”

In its “Gossip” column, Versiya weekly says rumor has it that Rogozin has decided to compensate for his problems in politics by making a success of a new role: as a television program host. After all, he did major in journalism at Moscow State University. According to Versiya, “Rogozin has already received an offer from one of the national networks to host a new current affairs program.”

This isn’t a bad idea at all: after all, everyone knows that voters judge politicians solely by television images these days – since they have no other criteria to go on. It’s important to be seen on television.

Meanwhile, says Semyon Novoprudsky in Vremya Novostei, the rest of the country – outside the political scene – “hasn’t even noticed the de facto disappearance of Motherland, which got 10% of the vote only two-and-a-half years ago – the votes of people who seemed to have some political views of their own, at least, no matter how barbaric.”

According to Novoprudsky, “the life and death of the Motherland party is a history of the life and death of incubator politics, which political strategists attempt to invent for citizens, for society.” And this offers an object lesson for Russia’s other parties – especially United Russia.

United Russia, says Novoprudsky, “shouldn’t forget that it came off the very same conveyor belt, supervised by the same smiths forging political prosperity for Russia, where the Motherland party was later turned, planed, and trimmed with a fret-saw.” The only difference between them is that “the United Russia product was fitted into the slot marked ‘pro-government party,’ while the Motherland product was fitted into the slot marked ‘opposition.'” So if these products start wanting to “feel like living things, acquiring an ideology of their own and other attributes of real parties, they could be melted down immediately.” And they would be replaced, immediately, by new products: “Fortunately, the skills required to produce them have already been acquired.”

So Novoprudsky advises United Russia to be more cautious – for example, with law-making initiatives such as the idea that members of parliament should be permitted to sit on the boards of corporations. That’s because “puppets, by definition, cannot do the work of puppet-masters – in fact, the puppet-master might take offense at any such intentions.” It’s also dangerous to propose new national projects or declare a wish to participate in distributing Investment Fund money.

After all, says Novoprudsky, if United Russia were abolished tomorrow, “no one would notice – apart from its leaders, if they fail to find suitable jobs or pensions elsewhere.” Not everyone can switch to hosting television programs.

But the decline of Motherland holds an even more important political lesson for the opposition, says Novoprudsky: “Establishing a real party in Russia can no longer be a form of business activity in itself, or a way of shielding another business from the authorities. It’s an act of lawful political competition, which cannot include any behind-the-scenes deals with the authorities.”

But the Communists, who now occupy the niche of United Russia’s opposition within the system, have already declared that they aren’t scared of the Kremlin.

At a recent meeting of the CPRF Central Committee, deputy leader Ivan Melnikov said that the Kremlin’s political strategists can only treat “Kremlin projects,” with no real force behind them, as they have treated Motherland. Kommersant quotes Melnikov as saying: “Did anyone hold protest rallies in defense of Motherland? But we are capable of leading people out into the streets, and if the situation deteriorates, we’ll bring out even more people!”

Melnikov told Kommersant that he’s not in the least embarrassed about the fact that most CPRF leaders – the people who would have to organize those protests, if necessary – are aged around 60 or over. Then again, he did add that protests can only be effective if young people are actively involved.

According to Kommersant, the CPRF is having problems with young people.

On the one hand, the party’s ageing functionaries in the regions are sincerely trying to recruit young party members. On the other hand, those functionaries fear for their party leadership posts, which they have held almost since the Soviet era, and they see potential rivals in anyone who shows aptitude for organization or does well in elections.

Boris Makarenko (Political Techniques Center) told Kommersant that the CPRF has quite a few young members, but they’re usually confined to the role of “rank-and-file campaign staff.” They do manage to change a few things within the party, but as Makarenko puts it, “it’s at the level of perfecting the slide rule rather than inventing the computer.”

According to Makarenko, the CPRF’s present leaders “are too fearful of losing the elderly voters they understand” to “launch any risky experiments in the attempt to capture new voters.” Therefore, the CPRF electorate is “strictly confined to a certain socio-demographic framework,” while citizens under 50 “no longer respond to Zyuganov’s Soviet-style populism.”

In Makarenko’s opinion, the protest tactics chosen by the CPRF are fairly effective, but the most they can do is stop the Kremlin “reducting the CPRF’s share of the vote from 15% to 10%.”

Zyuganov himself says he hopes to increase the CPRF’s result to 30% of the vote in the election of 2007.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta quotes Zyuganov as saying: “We need to reach every single apartment building, and have at least one of our people there.”

Just like its main rival, United Russia, the CPRF intends to establish an institution of party supporters: “for those who can’t join the CPRF due to fear of harassment, and comrades who aren’t yet ready to take that final step.”

The main tasks of party supporters will be to campaign for the party, vote for it, and lead protesters out into the streets. The CPRF leadership will ensure that the voice of the people is heard: a major part of the CPRF’s budget for this year will be spent on equipping regional branches with modern sound amplification equipment. According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, this spending item could total about 10 million rubles.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta adds that under new legislation, Russia’s largest opposition party is entitled to a considerable amount of federal funding: according to the CPRF’s own calculations, this should amount to 38 million rubles in 2006. Until now, membership dues have been the CPRF’s main source of revenue.

Meanwhile, the right-wing parties are facing problems of a different kind. They still can’t find a solution to the problem of unification.

The Novye Izvestia newspaper reports that Russian Republican Party (RRP) leader Vladimir Ryzhkov and Union of Right Forces (URF) federal policy council chairman Nikita Belykh said at a recent joint press conference that the unified pro-democracy forces could potentially get 20-30% of the vote. “But the right-wing parties are getting 1-2% in elections,” Ryzhkov noted. “The demand is there – but supply is lacking.”

Belykh maintains that the unification process for the pro-democracy forces should strengthen by this summer. He said: “In my view, we shouldn’t talk about timeframes for establishing a new party – we should talk about when the unification process will reach the point of no return. It must become irreversible no later than summer this year.”

In the name of unification, the right-wing parties are even prepared to part with their own well-known brand-names. Belykh says that the process should produce a new political force with a new name, although it would be based on an existing party.

On the whole, says Novye Izvestia, a rather odd picture is emerging on the right.

Mikhail Kasyanov has already declared his unification mission, and he recently announced the formation of the People’s Democratic Union, for the express purpose of unifying the pro-democracy forces.

The same intentions have been expressed by Democratic Party of Russia (DPR) leader Andrei Bogdanov. According to him, DPR activists are already meeting with regional branches of Yabloko, the URF, and the RRP and inviting them to join his organization.

What’s more, the Free Russia and New Right parties have joined the process; according to Novye Izvestia, “rumor has it that these parties are Kremlin projects.”

In general, says Novye Izvestia, if the “unification” process among pro-democracy forces continues along these lines, there is the danger that voters in the next Duma election will be thoroughly confused by an abundance of different policy programs and party names.

That is, if the Central Electoral Commission – the janitor of politics – permits such a mess.

But there seems to be no danger of that. Andrei Fedorov, head of the Political Research and Consulting Center, said at the “Lottery 2007: Who will remain in politics?” conference that the next parliamentary election should be regarded as “a selection process, not a political process – its objective is to winnow out most of the political parties.” And therefore, adds the Vremya Novostei newspaper, no “triumph of democracy” should be expected at that election.

The most succinct statement on that topic came from Experimental Creative Center president Sergei Kurginian: “Things will be interesting in 2007, presumably, but not because of the main event in itself.”