“I serve United Russia!” said Governor Alexander Berdnikov of the Altai republic, unable to restrain his emotion after joining the United Russia party. As the Vedomosti newspaper reports, the May 22 meeting of United Russia’s general council welcomed several regional leaders into the party’s ranks: Vyacheslav Shtyrov from Yakutia, Leonid Markelov from Marii El, Alexander Karlin from the Altai territory, Vyacheslav Dudka from the Tula region, and the aforementioned Alexander Berdnikov.
After handing out the new membership cards, United Russia leader Boris Gryzlov revealed the details of the meeting’s main topic: “the United Russia party’s implementation of Vladimir Putin’s plan.”
Vyacheslav Volodin, United Russia’s general council presidium secretary, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that the party’s campaign policy program will be based on President Putin’s annual addresses to parliament, “since these documents are not ephemeral – they take a long-term view.”
Boris Gryzlov explained exactly what United Russia understands “the Putin Plan” to mean, setting out five “key paragraphs of this plan.” They are listed in Nezavisimaya Gazeta. The first and most important point was expressed by Gryzlov as follows: “Russia is a unique and great civilization, and our attitude to national development tasks should correspond to that, with a full understanding of our resonsibility for Russia’s future.” The second point concerned building a competitive economy. The third concerned “a new quality of life for Russian citizens,” the fourth concerned establishing civil society institutions, and the fifth concerned “Russia’s ongoing development as a sovereign state.” Gryzlov said that his party “is capable of providing political support for the national leader and the national development strategy he has proposed.”
Sergei Markov, director of the Political Studies Institute, said at the meeting: “Our task is to become part of Europe while retaining a Russian soul. That is what I see as the essence of the Putin Plan.” He added: “The country should not be governed by billionaires who kick open the doors of Kremlin offices.” In Markov’s view, the Putin Plan is “at the stage of self-definition and establishment.” He said: “Reserves for development are being accumulated. Putin’s efforts have created a vast Stabilization Fund, an oversight system for financial resources, and a strong hierarchy of governance – while also paying off foreign debts and establishing stable political institutions.” Markov described all these achievements as “Putin’s spring,” capable of accumulating potential energy: “The future will arrive when that spring uncoils.”
Andrei Vorobiev, head of United Russia’s executive committee, maintains that “the Putin Plan and our party’s policy program are closer than twins – essentially, this is a policy course aimed at ensuring Russia’s success in the international arena and in domestic politics.” Vorobiev noted that Russia is very lucky to be led by “a person who has been able to provide a success strategy.” In Vorobiev’s view, United Russia simply has to win the Duma election in December, “in order to continue implementing the Putin Plan.”
Yevgeny Minchenko, director of the International Political Evaluation Institute, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that some differences may emerge between Putin’s actual plan and the Putin Plan according to United Russia. Minchenko said: “Putin has an interest in government pluralism, where approved players truly compete with each other.” Thus, “he has no interest in United Russia’s current position, with its strong dominance in the Duma.”
Minchenko maintains that “the Putin Plan is more likely to retain existing voters than attract new voters.” Given that Putin is turning into a lame duck, one way or another, including his ideas in the party’s policy program won’t bring in new votes for United Rusisa, says Minchenko: “But it will help United Russia to keep some voters who are thinking about switching to Just Russia. Around 10% of United Russia’s voters are considering this.”
RIA Novosti observer Dmitri Orlov also believes that a Putin Plan really does exist: “It’s absurd to assume that the Putin Plan is some sort of formalized document like ‘Basic Directions for Socio-Economic Development’ or the three-year budget.” But this plan does have several specific provisions, says Orlov: a Russian national model of democracy, a one-and-a-half-party system, a just society, an innovation-based economy, and a focus on continuity.
Dmitri Orlov says: “The dominance of United Russia, its development as a nationwide party supported by a diverse range of voters, and ‘an alloy of values’ – that is the foundation for further development of the party system.” According to Putin, however, opposition activity will be guaranteed by “the intense competion for second prize in December’s parliamentary election – the battle over who will be the chief restriction on United Russia’s dominance in the political process.” Orlov maintains that according to the Putin Plan, “rivalry between the Communist Party and Just Russia is a realistic long-term mechanism for ensuring that protest moods are channeled normally, and left-wing parties are normally represented in parliament.”
Orlov argues that United Russia is the only party that can be a model of institutional continuity: who else can nominate the president, or perhaps form a majority-based government at some later stage? Who else is supported by such a broad coalition of elites, including regional elites?
Vedomosti approached some experts for comments. Political analyst Dmitri Oreshkin says that the idea of consolidation around the Putin Plan reminds him of Soviet-style political statements. Political consultant Mikhail Vinogradov says that it’s not a new move, but it might work – in the absence of well-argued criticism from any opponents. Igor Zotov, secretary of Just Russia’s central council, objects that voters are unlikely to believe United Russia: “they always decide to close ranks and support Putin in an election year,” but they don’t support the president’s annual addresses with the decisions they make in parliament.
The forthcoming election campaign will be complicated by United Russia’s loss of its monopoly on television airtime. However, experts say this won’t affect the results at all; United Russia will make it into the Duma anyway, winning by a large margin.
The main trend in recent months has been increasing similarity between political parties in terms of television coverage amounts. Nezavisimaya Gazeta notes that the gulf between United Russia and other parties has vanished. As recently as late 2006, United Russia was being mentioned twice as often as its closest rival, the CPRF. But figures for spring 2007 show that the distance has been reduced substantially – to no more than 10% of United Russia’s figures. Just Russia is now firmly in third place. The ratio between Just Russia and the CPRF is about the same as between the CPRF and United Russia. The LDPR has been left out – although it often used to challenge the CPRF for second place in the television airtime ranking, according to the Medialogy monitoring agency. Joining the LDPR in the second group is the SPS – now divided by a television coverage gulf from its ally in the battle for liberal ideas, Yabloko. Although Yabloko regularly gets involved in protest events like the march on the Ostankino broadcasting center, Medialogy’s data shows that Yabloko gets only half as many mentions on television as the SPS.
But the main point of suspense in the Duma election – the battle of the giants, United Russia and Just Russia – might not happen at all. According to pollsters, Just Russia’s current rating is not only too low to secure second place (as party leader Sergei Mironov has predicted) – it doesn’t even guarantee Just Russia a place in the Duma.
According to the Levada Center, Just Russia’s support rating in April was 6%, which is lower than the election threshold (7% of the vote). Gazeta.ru reports that Just Russia is way behind the Communist Party (22%) and even the LDPR. Just Russia’s ambitions to challenge United Russia seem even more tenuous – United Russia’s position seems impregnable, with a rating of 53%. This situation has remained largely unchanged in May opinion polls.
Figures from other polling agencies offer little consolation for Just Russia, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta. According to VTsIOM, Just Russia was only slightly ahead of the LDPR – 6% compared to 5%. According to the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), Just Russia tied with the LDPR at 5%. Given the margin of statistical error, these figures say little about a party’s chances of crossing the Duma threshold – but they do indicate that Just Russia can’t be regarded as a real rival to United Russia.
It’s entirely possible that the authorities have decided to rein in the Just Russia party – or even abandon the “Kremlin’s second leg” project entirely. Just Russia is now being set a far more modest task: making it into the Duma and fighting the Communists for a place in the sun.