The Novye Izvestia newspaper observes that summer is a good time for politicians to play information games. The genre of political word-games is more popular than ever – and even the most bizarre proposals can sometimes become reality.
As usual, LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky is a leading newsmaker. In late May, for example, he proposed declaring official “siestas” on days when the temperature across most of Russia exceeds 25 degrees Celsius. He also proposed some mandatory selection criteria for state officials and civil servants: they must have completed a period of military services, have a college degree, have at least two children, and weigh under 90 kilograms. On another occasion, he proposed that state officials and civil servants should have surveillance cameras installed in their offices, in order to fight corruption, and that the terms of Duma members should be increased to six years. He has invited other former Soviet countries to merge into Russia – inviting Ukraine to split in two, with one half joining Russia – and so on.
Igor Yakovlev, head of the Research Center at the Moscow City University of Government Administration, told Novye Izvestia: “Such moves are made in order to create some sort of story pretext for media coverage of particular politicians. We might compare it to an attempt to feed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread. Jesus Christ managed it, but I really doubt that any of these politicians can do anything of the kind.”
Novye Izvestia warns that not even the strangest proposals from politicians should be taken lightly. Some of them end up being implemented. Back in 2001, for example, the LDPR talked of restoring “Russia’s traditional administration system – a hierarchy of governance,” and insisted that regional leaders should be appointed by the president. All this sounded like nonsense back then; but it has happened.
Two years ago, Artur Chilingarov, well-known Arctic specialist and United Russia member, proposed a search for the borders of Russia’s shelf. This year, a Russian polar expedition has planted a Russian flag (made of titanium) on the floor of the Arctic Ocean.
As the Kommersant newspaper reports, the expedition also left a time-capsule containing a message to future generations and United Russia’s logo. Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the Federation Council’s foreign affairs committee, described this as a great publicity stunt for United Russia. “The whole expedition is an excellent way of boosting the rating of United Russia, of which I am a member, ahead of the Duma election. Grabbing this idea was a very timely move by the party leadership,” said Margelov. But he also assured Kommersant that there are some far more serious interests behind the Arctic 2007 expedition: “We are not only concerned about politics. Exploring the Arctic Ocean is a substantial geo-economic project for Russia.”
Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov, leader of Just Russia, has been using the populist proposal genre more and more often. In the course of this summer, he has proposed cutting conscription terms to six months, equating corruption with treason, introducing state-regulated prices for basic food items and a state monopoly on alcohol; he has predicted unification for Moscow and the Moscow region, as well as St. Petersburg and the Leningrad region; he has told Bashkortostan that it doesn’t need a new treaty with Moscow on the distribution of powers.
The intense political activity levels of Mironov and his party is yielding results. Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports that the Levada Center polling agency has compiled a “swinging voter” table. Opinion polls show that 16% of respondents who support United Russia would vote for Just Russia if their usual party wasn’t in the race. Clearly, Just Russia has a chance of taking some votes away from United Russia in the Duma election.
The bad news for Just Russia is that a third of its supporters (34%) would vote for United Russia if Just Russia wasn’t in the race.
Nezavisimaya Gazeta draws a surprising conclusion from the Levada Center’s poll results: Russian voters with established party preferences are most likely to vote for United Russia if their preferred parties are not in the race. Aside from Just Russia, the LDPR also has a high rating for proximity to United Russia (24%); unexpectedly, so does the Communist Party (19%).
Boris Dubin, head of the Levada Center’s socio-political studies department: “There is no structure of resistance to United Russia, as such. There is more of a wait-and-see approach, or even willingness to cross over and join United Russia.”
The RBC Daily newspaper reports that the Bashkirova and Partners polling agency has surveyed voter loyalty. The oldest parties have the most dedicated supporters; 83% of respondents who plan to vote for the Communist Party (CPRF) this year say they have always voted for this party. United Russia has 61% of potential voters who always vote for this party. Among the newer parties gaining supporters this year is Just Russia (57% of its potential voters have made up their minds within the past year), along with Civil Force (40% of its potential voters have made their choice this year). This is easily explained: Just Russia was established as recently as October 2006, and Civil Force has also gained recognition recently (it was formerly known as Free Russia).
Alexei Mukhin, general director of the Political Information Center, told RBC Daily: “Under the new circumstances, it really is difficult for political strategists to promote a new party brand-name successfully. Civil Force seems to be the exception to this rule. So the Union of Right Forces (SPS) does have some cause for concern: Civil Force will take votes from it.”
Experts approached by Nezavisimaya Gazeta say that SPS voters who are displeased with that party’s shift to the left might choose to support Civil Force instead.
Nezavisimaya Gazeta looks at the Dostroika (Completion) newspaper, just launched by the SPS. The new ideological postulate adopted by the SPS is this: completing construction of Russia and a modern society.
Nezavisimaya Gazeta notes that people who voted in the March round of regional elections might feel somewhat confused; only five months ago, the SPS was using the word “completion” in the context of “completing the process of building capitalism in Russia.” But capitalism isn’t mentioned at all in Dostroika, the party’s newspaper for the Duma election campaign. Neither is there any mention of protecting private property rights or encouraging free enterprise – the alpha and omega of the “old” SPS.
Duma member Anton Bakov, SPS campaign manager, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that the party is not leaning to the left: “We’re talking about ‘completion’ in the broader sense – not only capitalism, but everything else. When we spoke of completing the process of building capitalism, many interpreted this as being confined to economic policy. But it’s also important to complete the process in social relations and state-building. We’re living in a country that is noticeably incomplete, in many respects.”
Opponents of the SPS say the party is playing a risky game. Just Russia spokesman Alexander Morozov: “They might lose their regular right-wing voters to Civil Force, for example, yet fail to win more left-wing votes. No matter what kind of political techniques that party may use, it remains a right-wing liberal party. It cannot reinvent itself. Its voters are people who expect the party to be more focused on the individual.” All the same, Just Russia doesn’t rule out the possibility of the SPS managing to pick up 1-1.5% of the left-wing vote.
SPS ideologues reject these accusations of populism. Bakov says: “The electorate is neither left-wing nor right-wing. It’s politicians who are left-wing or right-wing, but the electorate is just hungry. It wants Russia’s immediate problems solved, right now.”
In the meantime, according to Kommersant-Vlast magazine, some fine prospects are opening up for Civil Force. Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration, has called on this party to be more active. He attended the Civil Force conference last week.
Although the conference session where Surkov delivered his speech was closed to the media, participants later quoted Surkov as saying that he is concerned about Russia’s shift to the left and the fact that “the right wing is rather weak.”
Kommersant-Vlast points out that Surkov is the senior Kremlin official in charge of party-building; his visits to party conferences are rare and momentous. Back in March 2006, Sergei Mironov’s Party of Life was thought to have poor prospects; but Surkov attended a meeting of this party’s leaders and made a widely-quoted speech. “Our society lacks a second leg to which it could shift its weight when the first leg goes numb,” said Surkov, advising the Party of Life to work on the nationalist protest vote. Less than a year later, Mironov’s party has absorbed Motherland, the Party of Pensioners, and the People’s Party. In its new identity, Just Russia, it now has half a million members.
Alexander Konovalov, president of the Strategic Evaluations Institute, told Vremya Novostei: “Demand for democratic values is fairly strong in our society. That demand is currently represented by Civil Force, the SPS, Yabloko, and the Other Russia. The Kremlin’s most convenient option would be to focus on the SPS and Civil Force. The SPS is almost a within-the-system party already, but it’s still fairly independent. Civil Force seems to be part of a broader Kremlin project aimed at maintaining Putin’s political presence after he leaves office. This project requires an entirely controllable parliament.”
According to Konovalov, the Kremlin has positioned Mironov and Just Russia to take votes from the CPRF. “And Civil Force has been invented for unequivocal pro-democracy voters who want free speech and private property rights.” If Just Russia, Civil Force, and United Russia all make it into the Duma, they will actually function as a single Kremlin-controlled party there. Konovalov says: “This will amount to a constitutional majority, like United Russia has now, only even better.”
Vremya Novostei suggests that the emergence of the Other Russia opposition coalition may have prompted the Kremlin to make a resolute move to create its own right-wing party. Iosif Diskin, co-chairman of the National Strategy Council, maintains that the SPS “still isn’t evolving toward a coherent position.” Diskin concludes: “This is why the Kremlin has decided to add an extra safeguard by presenting a party that is more establishment-oriented and more glamorous. I’d describe Civil Force as a glamorous version of the SPS.”