The right and the left within the United Russia party

Several senior United Russia party members have held a press conference to promote a “right-wing” ideology for the party. This is described as the start of an intra-party debate about United Russia’s future. The leftists among United Russia’s leadership may hold a press conference of their own.On April 19, some members of the United Russia party’s Duma faction – Vladimir Pligin, Andrei Makarov, and Alexander Lebedev – essentially announced the start of efforts to create a “right wing,” a “liberal” wing, for United Russia. This is likely to signal a great debate within the party about United Russia’s prospects. The timing for starting this “right-wing project” is no coincidence: a significant meeting of United Russia’s general council is coming up on April 23, where the future of the whole party will be discussed. Moreover, with two years remaining before the next elections, United Russia’s liberal wing will have time to either gain some political weight (becoming a substantial rival to existing right-wing parties), or fail (a failure could be attributed to the members’ incompetence, and a new project could be launched).

On and off the record, United Russia members keep giving assurances that there won’t be a split. The press conference called by Pligin the lawyer, Makarov the attorney, Lebedev the banker and former candidate for Moscow mayor, Governor Dmitri Zelenin of the Tver region, and Governor Mikhail Prusak of the Novgorod region is described as the start of an intra-party debate about United Russia’s future. At present, United Russia is frozen in some sort of transition state (ideologically colorless); it can’t seem to decide where to go from here, or even if movement is necessary at all.

Vladimir Pligin maintains that by formulating a clear liberal ideology, United Russia could win over 35% of the vote in the next elections. Pligin said: “Our current voter support potential is 35%. And our actions are aimed at expanding that circle, that potential, as much as possible.” The speakers at the press conference were asked several times whether they might go into the next Duma elections with a separate party list in the event that their views don’t find support within United Russia. Each time, they replied that there is no talk of that option at present.

Meanwhile, the leftists among United Russia’s leadership (their ideologue is considered to be Duma member Andrei Isayev) may hold a press conference of their own. United Russia’s leftists maintain that “the debate itself has been imposed from above” (that is, imposed by the presidential administration), and that adopting a distinct party position would risk diluting United Russia’s still-stable electorate. The main argument of United Russia’s leftists is as follows: a party is shaped to fit a policy program, not an ideology; ideology-based parties went out with the last century.

According to our sources, the party’s general council will attemt to sort out the differences between the two sides when it meets on April 23. In a speech at this meeting, United Russia leader Boris Gryzlov should indicate the party’s direction of development. Proposals range from social conservatism to moderate liberalism. United Russia’s de facto wings have made their presence felt during almost every important vote in the Duma, and during intra-party discussion of significant legislation. The latest example of this came on Monday, April 18, when the United Russia faction’s presidium discussed the law on social standards. According to our sources, the left-wing Andrei Isayev and right-wing Vladislav Reznik clashed bitterly over the key provisions of this legislation.

A year ago, Oleg Morozov, deputy chairman of United Russia’s Duma faction, was the first to mention the possibility of a right wing separating from the party and the faction. He added that party leaders “had not yet discussed this question.” Subsequently, however, they did discuss it – repeatedly. Members of United Russia’s general council found themselves having to make public statements to the effect that “we are considering it, but no decision has been made as yet.” The latest wave of behind-the-scenes talk of a split came after Dmitri Medvedev, head of the presidential administration, gave a significant interview given to Ekspert magazine. Medvedev stated directly that a liberal party is essential. Since then, demand for the right-wing idea (properly expressed in the form of a party) has risen exponentially. Existing right-wing parties and politicians have been particularly busy: from the semi-forgotten Union of Right Forces to the currently fashionable Mikhail Kasianov and Garry Kasparov, as well as the liberals of Yabloko.

As yet, it isn’t clear where United Russia’s intra-party discussion will lead. If the party’s right-wingers decide at some point that they need their own party list and individual membership, this would be a real step towards splitting United Russia, the major pro-Kremlin party.

A high-placed source told us: “The leaders of this wing are only ‘technical’ for now, but a great deal will depend on the extent of their ambitions. And if they prove to be incompetent at organization, the project could be called off, restoring everything to the status quo.”