Russia will have a two-party system – but not yet

A speech by Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration, has caused a minor storm in the media. The new party formed by the merger of Motherland and the Russian Party of Life is supposed to become Russia’s second major party, a counterweight to United Russia.

A speech by Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration, was posted on the Russian Party of Life (RPL) website earlier this week and subsequently reprinted in several newspapers. Against the backdrop of August’s traditional news shortage, this speech has caused a minor storm in the media. The unusual aspect here is that Surkov, the Kremlin’s chief ideologue, delivered the speech as far back as March 24, 2006. This is raising a number of questions, most of which come down to the classic question: “Who stands to benefit from this?”

The RPL’s media activity, so unusual for the vacation season, is understandable: following the recent announcement that the RPL, founded by Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov, will merge with the refurbished Motherland (Rodina) party, the new party has been given a chance to prove itself before this autumn’s regional elections. Mironov himself will head the RPL-Motherland list of candidates in the Lipetsk region. Only then will it be possible to judge the real potential of the RPL. Even now, however, this much is obvious: the RPL won’t be seeking to take any votes from the United Russia party. It will be targeting the left. In other words, the daringly-publicized Surkov quote from March (Russia “lacks an alternative major party, our society lacks a ‘second leg’ to which it could shift its weight when the first leg goes numb”) presents a plan for giving Russian politics a healthy anatomy. The second leg in question certainly won’t be a right leg, since that leg already exists, and it’s feeling fine: the United Russia party. The second leg will be a left leg – because if the Kremlin does need a political force on the left, it should be a resurrected 2003-model Motherland. This is what Surkov meant when he called on RPL activists to refrain from any fratricidal conflicts with United Russia.

According to our Kremlin sources, Surkov himself is giving the RPL at least five years to become Russia’s second-largest party, or the major party on the left, overtaking the Communist Party. That’s at least two electoral cycles: quite a long time, given the rapid pace of Russian politics. According to the same sources, United Russia is supposed to dominate Russian politics and elections for the next 15-20 years. Five years and 20 years: the scale is quite different. So United Russia and the RPL aren’t rivals – just different-sized poles on the political spectrum.

Besides, Surkov is a realist. He’d like to see Russia have a two-party system now, like the systems used in America or France. But he understands that this is impossible at our present stage of social development. The Kremlin’s chief ideologue is being entirely consistent: Russian politics should not give any party a monopoly or the advantages of primogeniture. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be a democracy.