The game of party politics will now be played according to new rules

The new alliance between the Motherland party and the Russian Party of Life could actually make Russian politics healthier – contrary to the intentions of the merger organizers. Its broader consequences weren’t predicted by Kremlin strategists.

Back in spring, when business tycoon Alexander Babakov replaced Dmitri Rogozin as leader of the Motherland (Rodina) party, practically all commentators were united in questioning Motherland’s political future. Babakov himself didn’t even bother to pretend that Motherland was still an opposition party.

Motherland hasn’t made the headlines very often since Babakov took over. The most notable exception to this silence was the scandal over the party’s expulsion of Mikhail Delyagin, director of the Globalization Studies Institute, as punishment for his attendance at the Other Russia conference. Delyagin told us that when Babakov informed him of the decision to expel him, Babakov didn’t even know which conference he was talking about; he confused the Other Russia with the Russian Social Forum in St. Petersburg. After promising to make his exit from Motherland “lengthy and painful for Babakov,” Delyagin tried to initiate the process of having him deposed as Motherland leader, collecting signatures from leaders of the party’s regional branches; but Delyagin’s campaign was unsuccessful. Meanwhile, Motherland has already turned into a confederation of regional branches controlled by regional politicians who haven’t managed to get into the United Russia party.

Therefore, when several anonymous reports on several leftist-patriotic websites in late July claimed that Motherland had almost reached agreement on a merger with the Russian Party of Life (RPL), everyone assumed this was nothing more than routine disinformation resulting from the ongoing distribution of Motherland’s legacy. Yet the reports turned out to be absolutely true. This became clear when Alexander Babakov was received at the Kremlin by President Vladimir Putin (the presidential press service said they discussed “party-building issues”), and held a joint press conference the next day with the RPL leader, Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov. Firstly, Mironov said that the RPL and Motherland had decided to “pool their efforts.” Babakov then explained: “We have made the decision to unite Russia’s two main opposition parties: the RPL and Motherland.” Both Babakov and Mironov are describing the united organization as Russia’s largest opposition party: according to official records, the RPL has 123,503 members and Motherland has 151,000.

The merger will be carried out in stages. The RPL and Motherland will contest this autumn’s regional elections separately, only “coordinating their actions”; but they will have a combined list of candidates for the elections of 2007.

The unified party has no name as yet. At their press conference, Mironov and Babakov sat in front of a large banner reading “The Relevant Left.” This term was probably coined by Mironov – at least, he was the one who explained that the RPL and Motherland are the “relevant left” because “the ideology of life is leftist in itself,” and the new party will succeed “if only because for a long time to come, Russia will remain a country where leftist ideology is preferred and social justice ideas are attractive.”

In his policy statement, Mironov couldn’t resist his habitual tributes to President Putin. He described Putin’s policy course as “a course that has restored our feeling that we, the Russians, are a great people.” Mironov also has a clear stance on 2008: “The most important point is that the president we have in 2008 should continue the current policy course, and in the presidential election I will support whichever candidate is endorsed by Putin.” At the same time, both Mironov and Babakov emphasized that their party will be a real opposition party, and is not “Kremlin-designed.”

And this seems to be more than just a figure of speech in party advertising. The presidential administration departments that handle party-building really didn’t have any plans to establish a second Kremlin-backed party on the basis of the RPL, let alone Motherland. What’s more, these departments responded to the Mironov-Babakov press conference with poorly-concealed irritation.

The new merged party could prove quite attractive for regional politicians with ambiguous reputations and great ambitions

Gleb Pavlovsky, head of the Effective Policy Foundation, commented on the new alliance quite harshly – if also mysteriously, as he tends to speak: “They want to be the number one party, but right now they’re not even in second place – more like tenth place. How far are they willing to go to become number one? Are politicians prepared to sacrifice any part of national sovereignty in return for power? If that is the price, this party would gladly pay it.” He went on to say: “One of the key aspects here is the ‘third term’ for President Putin. The third term issue is a fairly clear criterion: those who insist on it are the people who’d like to hit the nation over the head with a chair and immobilize it.” Therefore, “first of all we need to prevent the nation from being hit over the head with a chair – and then we need to take a look at these people’s motivations for trying to take away national sovereignty” and replace it with “sovereignty for a very small, compact group of individuals from the upper nomenklatura, who for one reason or another are satisfied with the status quo.”

Which “individuals from the upper nomenklatura” are those? This question is easily answered by taking a closer look at Mironov’s recent activities.

The Prosecutor General’s Office stepped up its political activities this spring – a process ending in the dismissal of Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov. The process affected several areas of activity, and one of the more important ones was regional politics. An unmotivated purge of the Federation Council, initiated by Speaker Mironov (he insisted on four senators being recalled), was supported so directly and harshly by the Prosecutor General’s Office (including the first ever arrest of an incumbent elected governor, Alexander Barinov) that it became clear that Mironov and Ustinov were planning to become allies. This connection largely sealed Ustinov’s fate: such an overt claim by the siloviki (security and law enforcement people) faction to control over the upper house, perhaps leading to control over regional elites, disturbed the balance of power in the Kremlin. Consequently, the siloviki lost their main coercive tool: the Prosecutor General’s Office.

Until now, public politics had been the domain of another Kremlin faction; the siloviki stayed out of it, considering it a “non-core asset.” Now that the situation has changed, with the siloviki losing control over the Prosecutor General’s Office, public politics has become a field where they can pursue their claims to power and their vision for Russia’s future.

In this sense, the Motherland-RPL merger turns out to be a fairly strong move, capable of making substantial changes to Russia’s party politics configuration.

The first critic of the alliance was Mikhail Delyagin. Straight after the Mironov-Babakov press conference, Delyagin told news agencies that “no sane person would ever join Mironov – he’s been a laughing-stock all his life.”

Sergei Shargunov, leader of Motherland’s youth wing, said that criticism of the new party is motivated by “political outsiders and the usual idiots envying a project that will automatically get a chance to win a strong position in the election of 2007.” In Shargunov’s view, the new party has three qualities that will guarantee election success: “ideas expressed in the form of legislative initiatives, heightening the level of fairness in society”; authoritative and prominent individual politicians who either have the public’s confidence already or are capable of gaining it; and “a firm commitment to not seeking power through any unconventional scenarios.”

But all this is mostly rhetoric. The merged party’s real prospects depend on its one and only publicly-identified quality: support for President Putin, and support (at least conditionally) from President Putin. The mechanism that makes the new party attractive to the regional elites is quite simple and effective. Motherland is a name that voters recognize; Mironov is Russia’s third most senior state official (part of the authorities, more or less) and a symbol of loyalty to Putin. It wouldn’t be easy to use administrative resources against Mironov’s party: even if requests from Moscow are very insistent, regional leaders couldn’t take an unequivocally strong stand against a party that’s unequivocally pro-Putin and also connected with the head of the Federation Council.

Moreover, there is great demand among the regional elites for a second Kremlin-backed party. Regional politicians who haven’t made it into the current in-crowd,, but don’t want to join the opposition either, will readily join another pro-Putin party. Therefore, regional politicians who used to see Motherland as an alternative Kremlin-backed party to United Russia, and have been discouraged by Motherland’s disqualifications in recent elections, will now be able to feel like winners. And they’re not alone. The new organization could prove quite attractive for regional politicians with ambiguous reputations and great ambitions.

For example, Duma member Yevgeny Roizman joined the RPL the very next day after the Mironov-Babakov press conference. Roizman was formerly associated with the UralMash group, and now heads the Drug-Free City Foundation in Yekaterinburg. Vladimir Plotnikov, who ran for mayor in Perm and lost, is also showing interest in the new party. He started out in petty crime, was subsequently convicted of extortion, and is now desperately trying to get back into politics in Perm; he regards the new party as an excellent spring-board. Most likely, the RPL-Motherland alliance will experience an influx of politicians of this type – because most politicians who are equally ambitious but less controversial have long since joined United Russia.

The Motherland and RPL leaders insist that the new party is oppositional – but this effectively turns out to be opposition to United Russia only – not opposition to the regime, let alone to Putin. What’s more, the main asset of this opposition is likely to be the opportunity to move much further to the left than United Russia can permit itself to do. And although the radicalism of the Rogozin-era Motherland is unlikely to find a place in the new alliance, a milder form of nationalism could well become a supplementary ideological and electoral resource.

The presidential administration (the part of it that handles public politics) will now be forced to change its strategy for countering the strengthening of the Mironov-Babakov alliance. In other words, it can no longer confidently pursue a policy of tactical purges of the political field for the benefit of United Russia. Besides, with a pro-presidential leftist force on the scene, United Russia’s own positioning becomes problematic. United Russia in its present form is a “left-right” party with no clearly-expressed ideology. If it stays that way, it might lose a substantial number of votes. Now, in order to prevent the new alliance from gaining noticeable opportunities, United Russia will have to shift to the left and become a full-fledged center-left party. This strategy could include a merger with the Russian Party of Pensioners, or even with the LDPR.

But if that happens, it isn’t clear where United Russia’s right-wing voters would go (they are estimated to make up 25-35% of the electorate). Consequently, it’s highly likely that the new situation will prompt United Russia’s Kremlin handlers to go ahead with a long-discussed move: splitting off a right wing from United Russia. This might involve using one of the Kremlin-controlled “sleeper parties” (like Free Russia): given the latest changes to legislation, there’s a shortage of parties which have been duly registered according to all the new rules. A new party of this kind could unite not only members of what is called United Russia’s right wing (such as Duma members Vladimir Pligin and Boris Reznik, and perhaps regional leaders like Alexander Khloponin and Dmitri Zelenin), but also former liberal party functionaries who have quit politics – such as Mikhail Zadornov or Konstantin Remchukov.

Most likely, other forms of “retaliatory action” are possible as well. In any event, the game of party politics will now be played according to new rules, and far more intensely.

By merging their parties, Sergei Mironov and Alexander Babakov, along with their partners from the Kremlin’s siloviki faction, have involuntarily set in motion the prematurely-frozen tectonic plates of Russia’s party system. In this context, the new party’s ideology and prospects become secondary; essentially, no one really needs this new party as such. But Mironov and Babakov do deserve thanks for unintentionally stimulating Russian politics.