An interview with Oleg Morozov, United Russia party

Oleg Morzov: “There is a certain strategy: proposed by Putin, implemented over the past eight years, and charted for the future in Putin’s latest address to parliament. And I’m sure that the new president will continue this strategy – because he cannot do otherwise.”

To conclude our series of interviews with party leaders, we talk with Oleg Morozov: senior deputy Duma speaker, senior deputy leader of the United Russia faction, deputy secretary of United Russia’s general council presidium.

Question: Some have called United Russia “the Kremlin’s trained bear.” What do you say to that?

Oleg Morozov: But the image of political fools who let someone lead them around on a chain and give them orders is mistaken. It’s mistaken in terms of what United Russia really is, and in terms of how it should be perceived, and in terms of United Russia’s relationship with the Kremlin.

Question: But from the outside, that’s exactly what it looks like! Your faction passes whatever legislation the Kremlin needs, unquestioningly – sometimes finding itself in a foolish position.

Oleg Morozov: In almost six years of United Russia’s existence and my partnership with the Kremlin, I can recall only a handful of instances when the Kremlin requested us to pass something urgently, for some reason, and someone from our side said: “Yes, this legislation has some problems, but our partners are asking us to expedite it for important reasons.”

Question: “Partners” – do you mean the Kremlin?

Oleg Morozov: Yes. The opinions of a substantial proportion of party members who understood the issues and pointed out errors were disregarded in those instances, and some wrong decisions were ultimately made. But it would be completely inaccurate to say that this happens every day! In recent years – with very rare exceptions – we haven’t passed a single bill unless consensus has been reached within the Duma-Cabinet-Kremlin triangle. What happens at the public level can be dull and uninteresting, since by the time a bill reaches the Duma, 70-80% of the issues are already resolved. And I’m the faction member entrusted with this consensus function: I meet with Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov at 2 p.m. every Monday, and at 5 p.m. I meet with Sergei Sobyanin, head of the presidential administration.

Question: So the Kremlin rather than the Duma is the place for debate?

Oleg Morozov: Why do you say that? The Duma is a place for debate too! Every Monday starts with a meeting of the faction’s presidium, also attended by representatives of the president and the government. This mechanism may be called pre-debating, or the “zero reading” of a bill. But there are some examples – like the law restricting beer-drinking, or the law on sea ports – when the Duma has made decisions without reaching consensus with the government.

Question: As long as the Kremlin and the government reach agreement, United Russia will do as it’s told. And if the Kremlin happens to side with United Russia, as in the beer-drinking case, the government will have to back down. The Kremlin makes all the decisions anyway!

Oleg Morozov: I think you’re over-simplifying things. In 99% of all cases, we make decisions that are agreed upon by all sides.

Question: All right, let’s put the question differently. Can you recall even one instance of United Russia saying no to Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration?

Oleg Morozov: I’m getting the impression that you think we’re bunch of speechless idiots who don’t have the right to express their point of view! In fact, I can’t recall a single meeting with Vladislav Surkov passing without an argument of some kind! Do you think Surkov gives the orders, and we just click our heels and run off to obey? That simply doesn’t happen. You’re making some sort of systematic error!

Question: You might not click your heels right away – you might start off by arguing, initially saying no – but eventually you will run off and obey.

Oleg Morozov: You shouldn’t think of Surkov in such crude terms either! Why are you demonizing him? Surkov is a perfectly reasonable person, quite capable of listening to other people’s points of view. He never says: “This is white, because it’s white!” He says: “This is white!” – then follows up the assertion with a sequence of arguments. Yes, there have been times when I’ve disagreed with him but accepted his position because he was relaying President Putin’s point of view. Six years ago, for example, when reforms to the political system started and new electoral legislation was being passed, I was a member of the relevant Duma commission, and I used to argue with Surkov. He said at the time: “This is an integrated solution – each and every brick is part of the building, and we either adopt the concept as a whole, in this form, or don’t adopt it at all.” And I agreed with that approach. Because if we’re seeking to create long-lasting political parties with many members, rather than soap-bubble parties that vanish after a campaign ends – and this is what Putin wanted, and Surkov relayed – then we should have adopted their patterns in United Russia, or said: “I’m not in this party, I’m going to join the Communists.”

Question: If United Russia is so independent, do you have any idea whom you will endorse in the presidential election? Or are you waiting to be told which candidate to support?

Oleg Morozov: Why do you say “waiting to be told”? Here we have a political party, and the party’s leadership, and the president – whom we view as our political leader, even though he is not a member of the party. And we shall consider that question within this construct.

Question: The American presidential election is over a year away, but the leading contenders for each party are already evident.

Oleg Morozov: The circle of United Russia’s candidates is also known to you.

Question: Who are they?

Oleg Morozov: There are about ten of them!

Question: We don’t know who’s on that list! Please tell us!

Oleg Morozov: I’ll put it this way: whenever you hear the name of any realistic candidate, he’s with us.

Question: Who? Ivanov and Medvedev?

Oleg Morozov: Everyone who may be regarded as a realistic candidate.

Question: But how can we tell if they’re realistic or not?

Oleg Morozov: We’re planning a party congress in early October. We shall make our decision public at that time. Right now it’s August. Why do you think it would be appropriate for me to talk about something that’s still under discussion, with various options being considered?

Question: But the other major parties have already decided on their candidates – while United Russia, the largest party, has not.

Oleg Morozov: Let me ask you a question in return. There’s a certain party – I’ve heard something of it – called Just Russia. Who is that party’s presidential candidate?

Question: The same person as your candidate, apparently.

Oleg Morozov: No, your question was: who is our candidate? And I’m asking you: who is their candidate? Because when there’s talk of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), it’s clear who that party’s candidate will be. When you say that the Communist Party (CPRF) has a candidate, I understand that it probably does.

Question: But you’re not even telling who might be your candidate!

Oleg Morozov: We’re not telling, because we’re still thinking it over.

Question: Can’t you name even one of those ten people?

Oleg Morozov: I won’t name even one.

Question: Then admit that United Russia itself doesn’t know who its candidate will be, because Putin hasn’t made the decision yet.

Oleg Morozov: Putin is a member of our team. And we’ll discuss this situation with him, of course.

Question: What if Sergei Ivanov heads United Russia’s candidate list in the Duma election, while Dmitri Medvedev heads Just Russia’s list?

Oleg Morozov: That would only confuse voters. If we’re responsible people who support a certain policy course, that course ought to be respresented by the person who really will be Putin’s successor and continue his course. Why mislead people?

Question: And if the future president is on your list after all, how likely is he to join the party?

Oleg Morozov: I don’t know. I just think that any party which is going into the election with an idelogoy of its own should function like a single mechanism headed by a candidate who is also the party leader. I think we’ll get to that point, sooner or later.

Question: Probably later. The question of a party-based government, formed by the parliamentary majority, has been discussed for years – with no progress.

Oleg Morozov: We’re not ready for that yet. We still haven’t finished establishing a party system – and you want it to function in all areas.

Question: But wouldn’t the transition to a party-based government facilitate establishing that system? If people are allowed to keep playing with toys indefinitely, they’ll never grow up!

Oleg Morozov: In any event, I believe that the link between the winning party and the next government will be far more obvious after the elections. It’s a formality at present, since only a few significant people from our party are Cabinet ministers, and strategies are not synchronized.

Question: You have said on more than one occasion that the successor will certainly continue Putin’s policy course. Why are you so sure of that? Yeltsin made Putin his successor in 1999 – but many of those who celebrated back then were in for a nasty surprise later.

Oleg Morozov: When I said that the successor can’t possibly be an “anti-Putin,” I didn’t mean that he’ll be running off to phone Putin before making each and every decision. I meant that there is a certain strategy: proposed by Putin, implemented over the past eight years, and charted for the future in Putin’s latest address to parliament. And I’m sure that the new president will continue this strategy – because he cannot do otherwise! The ship of state has built up a lot of momentum, it’s heading in the right direction – and anyone who tries to turn it around would simply lose control! As analysts all over the world now acknowledge, the Russian economy is obviously on the rise and the outlook is favorable. Fiscal and economic policy is ensuring that we have some prospects. So should we turn around and listen to the Communists, who claim that all the money our country has made should be directed into consumption immediately? Could we take such a path? Yes, we could! And where would it lead? To economic collapse!

Question: But aren’t you afraid that the current course might lead to social upheaval? How can we call this stability, when the latest official statistics show that social stratification, as measured by the income gap between our poorest and richest citizens, continues to grow?

Oleg Morozov: Yes, that is a problem… But I’ve heard the doom and gloom forecasts thousands of times in recent years: “Everything will collapse tomorrow, and why can’t you see that everything’s wrong?”

Question: But you are also using the prospect of collapse in your arguments.

Oleg Morozov: The danger is always present. But real-world policy-making differs from the policy of hysteria in that it’s necessary to see all the challenges and respond to them appropriately. But if you just keep making loud predictions about collapse, the collapse will happen. At present, I think we’re a long way further from collapse than we were in any of the pre-Putin years.

Question: The Putin era has been fortunate enough to coincide with rising oil prices. If oil prices had been this high back in the 1990s…

Oleg Morozov: The main argument used by critics of the government’s financial-economic policy in recent years is the Stabilization Fund. But all the windfalls from favorable export prices are in there! Everything else is our own actual economic growth. So why are you saying that all the good things are due to high oil prices?

Question: We’re not saying that everything is due to high oil prices. But even Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin admits that the lion’s share of budget revenue increases in recent years has come from oil and gas exports.

Oleg Morozov: Look at the statistics: growth rates in machine-building are higher than growth rates in natural resources extraction – so we now have some real stimuli for development in the real sector of the economy. Of course we have oil export revenues! Only a fool would deny that! Of course the favorable export circumstances are a factor! But that isn’t what defines the positive parameters of the current economic situation.

Question: Doesn’t it seem to you that your party has a rather unnatural relationship with Just Russia? They’re hurling criticism at United Russia all the time – but you’re pretending that none of this is happening.

Oleg Morozov: Just Russia has every chance of developing into a political party, but so far it’s nothing more than a campaign project. Yes, it’s intended to compensate for any possbile boredom with United Russia among citizens who support Putin and United Russia. Fair enough. But you know what I don’t like about it? Their completely insane anti-United Russia rhetoric, their cartoon-like self-promotion – which seems entirely laughable to me. Sometimes we don’t even want to respond to it. After all, when a child is throwing a tantrum in the sandbox, it’s pointless to give the child a serious lecture on appropriate behavior.

Question: But what if that child is taking votes from you?

Oleg Morozov: I’ll believe it when I see it.

Question: But the regional elections showed…

Oleg Morozov: They showed that we increased our share of the vote by 7-9%!

Question: What about the Stavropol territory and the Samara region? This might not be a trend, of course, but all the same…

Oleg Morozov: That’s an odd argument you’re using. So we lost a couple of districts, in the whole country. So what?

Question: But it’s as if you’re prepared to lose – as if someone has asked you to lose.

Oleg Morozov: If Sergei Mironov and Just Russia hadn’t emerged, somebody else would have. It’s more difficult with Mironov, since he’s the president’s man, and you never know which side to hit him from.

Question: He seems to have no trouble finding sides to hit you from.

Oleg Morozov: Well, he’s a loose cannon.

Question: You think he’s a loose cannon? Or has he received high-level permission to attack United Russia, while you have been denied permission to retaliate?

Oleg Morozov: You leave the rude remarks to Mr. Mironov. Well, he used to be a paratrooper – there’s no changing him.

Question: He’s the Federation Council speaker, Russia’s third most senior state official, and the president’s man. Did you notice that you called him a child in a sandbox just now?

Oleg Morozov: I noticed.

Question: So did President Putin make a mistake in appointing Mironov?

Oleg Morozov: That’s the president’s affair. That’s his right. I’d just like to say that if we’re talking of practical politics – elections – then it really is no more than a sandbox at present. A person may be a good speaker of the Federation Council, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be good as a party leader and successful political player. Let’s wait and see! But I’m sure that things will go well for Mironov, since he has some powerful resources – including some in the Kremlin.

Question: Who?

Oleg Morozov: Well, I don’t know.

Question: Powerful enough to restrain you?

Oleg Morozov: No one is restraining us.

Question: Why is Alexander Lebedev still a member of United Russia’s Duma faction? He’s the leader of Just Russia’s Moscow branch. Why haven’t you expelled him?

Oleg Morozov: I think that’s where the situation is heading.

Question: Is it conceivable that the United Russia faction might vote in favor of amending the Constitution to allow the president a third consecutive term in office? An amendment to that effect was submitted to the Duma by Chechnya’s regional parliament. And who knows if the Kremlin has firmly decided against a third term?

Oleg Morozov: Nothing in life can ever be ruled out entirely. But first of all, our faction and party have never discussed this topic in detail. Secondly, many of the leaders in our party and faction have spoken out in support of Putin’s stance. Thirdly, I know what Putin has said about this matter: for example, he said that by next March Russia will have a new president. All this leads me to conclude that the such a turn of events is extremely unlikely.

My personal point of view is as follows. Putin’s greatest merit is that despite all the temptations – public support, a majority in the Duma, the ability to regulate the process of electing regional leaders – he has made it clear to us that the Constitution takes precedence over political expediency. And why should he have a third term? Does our country have no prospects at all, or do we see its prospects as dependent on only one person? If so, we haven’t come very far from the recent past, when everything depended on the tsar or the leader. But I’d prefer to believe that we are now building a democracy.

Question: Some say that certain regional leaders are in line for dismissal – and practically all of them are from your party. So your party congress might choose certain regional leaders as the “steam engines” to head candidate lists, and then President Putin might suddenly lose confidence in them and dismiss them.

Oleg Morozov: I suspect that all the personnel changes at the regional level will happen before the election campaign. I assure you that no one will be dismissed during the campaign. Why would President Putin do that? In a certain sense, he’s part of the election campaign – like a football fan.

Question: A fan supporting his team, and the referee, and a player – all combined in one person. And how many regional leaders will be “steam engines” for United Russia?

Oleg Morozov: Over half.

Question: So over half of Russia’s regional leaders will be taking a leave of absence this autumn?

Oleg Morozov: Yes.

Question: How many parties will there be in the next Duma, and which party will come second in the election? Everyone knows who’ll finish first.

Oleg Morozov: I predict that United Russia, the CPRF, Just Russia, and the LDPR will manage to cross the 7% threshold. In that order. As for who gets how many percentage points – I don’t know, since it’s a competition.

Question: Your goal is to secure a majority in parliament. What percentage do you need for that?

Oleg Morozov: In the latest round of regional elections, our party averaged around 46% of the vote – and we believe that if we can repeat this result, and if the three other parties don’t get a combined total exceeding it, we’ll have over 225 seats. It’s an incredibly difficult task, but still feasible.

Question: And what’s the chance of getting a constitutional majority in the Duma – 300 seats?

Oleg Morozov: That is not feasible now. I think I’ll be covered in beer on December 3, since I’ve bet so many people a drink in the argument over whether the new electoral legislation will work to United Russia’s advantage. If we get a higher percentage of the vote – 46%, compared to 37% in 2003 – but end up with fewer seats, then it will become clear that we passed laws which work against us. And that’s exactly what will happen – wait and see.

Question: Who is your chief opponent in this election: still the CPRF, or Just Russia?

Oleg Morozov: I think the campaign will be spicy enough, with plenty of political sparks flying between United Russia and Just Russia. In terms of diverging strategies and policies – yes, the CPRF is still our chief opponent. Just Russia cannot be a strategic opponent, since it lacks any considered strategy of its own. Besides, this is a party that wants to be United Russia – only with a beard.

* * *

Some experts share their opinions.

Dmitri Oreshkin, political analyst:

United Russia might get 40-55% of the vote, but it still won’t get a constitutional majority. But if United Russia can persuade even one of the other Duma parties to vote with it, that would be enough to secure passage for all pro-government and pro-presidential legislation.

I’d single out four aspects of this campaign. 1) The administrative apparatus nationwide is far more consolidated than it was four years ago. All “unsightly” regional leaders have been purged, and the remaining regional leaders know perfectly well what percentage of the vote they should give United Russia in order to avoid any future career problems. They are entirely dependent on the Kremlin. 2) United Russia has become a less public party, and its key decisions are made behind closed doors. 3) United Russia is the only party whose campaign has been in full swing for some time. Look at the ads plastered all over Moscow, using “For the glory of Russia” as the slogan. 4) All media resources, primarily the state-controlled television networks, are consolidated around United Russia.

Sergei Markov, head of the Political Studies Institute:

The example of Kazakhstan’s parliamentary election shows us that the president’s popularity can provide a powerful boost for a party. And that boost will leave all the other parties far behind… In the 2003 campaign, United Russia’s slogan was “Putin’s party” – and now it’s “the party that will carry on with Putin’s plan after he leaves office.” This will attract people who like President Putin and want his precepts to be dominant in the next convocation of parliament. Unfortunately, United Russia has some serious problems. For example, its operating style is somewhat bureaucratic. It also lacks outstanding leaders, and it’s not doing enough to communicate with people directly.

Alexei Makarkin, deputy director, Political Techniques Center:

United Russia’s victories in regional elections are impressive: it won all of its campaigns in 2006, and 13 out of 14 in spring 2007. It is sure to win the December elections as well. The party’s major image asset is its identification with President Putin. This asset makes it possible to downplay the party’s basic flaw: its image as “the party of the bureaucracy” – the federal and regional nomenklatura. In the last Duma election, Putin endorsed only one political force: United Russia. This gave it a lot of extra points. United Russia will make active use of the Putin factor this time as well – it’s no coincidence that the leitmotif of its campaign is the idea that United Russia is carrying out Putin’s plan: he proposes a selection of ideas which are faithfully implemented by United Russia, consistently voting in parliament to pass legislation in accordance with “the sovereign’s plan.”