Five leading political analysts discuss the Duma election campaign

Comments on the forthcoming parliamentary campaign, and predictions about campaign issues, from five of Russia’s most prominent political analysts: Vyacheslav Nikonov, Dmitri Oreshkin, Dmitri Orlov, Gleb Pavlovsky, and Valery Khomyakov.

Question: How does this year’s election campaign differ from the parliamentary races of 2003 and 1999?

Vyacheslav Nikonov: In contrast to 1999, this campaign will be taking place during an obvious economic upswing. Back then, the big issue was overcoming the consequences of the 1998 default, while now it’s the need to distribute the policy of economic prosperity – or, in layman’s terms, what should be done with the Stabilization Fund. The number of political players is shrinking – actually, that’s quite normal for any democracy. The election of 2007 will not be a campaign based on ideology, but elections have always centered on personalities more than ideas. Take 1999, for example: there was an acute confrontation within the Kremlin party, with two political forces – the Unity movement and Fatherland-All Russia (OVR) – competing for the Kremlin party title. There will be two Kremlin parties in 2007 as well, although one of them obviously has the advantage, while the other is clearly lagging, and the relationship between them is clearly non-confrontational.

Dmitri Oreshkin: The chief distinction is that there’s less drama in the election, because the United Russia party’s dominance is all too obvious. And the public has become less interested in the election, which is an indirect consequence of the reduction in drama.

Dmitri Orlov: The campaign of 2007 is distinguished by the intense centralization of party forces and resources – which is natural enough, since this election is using party lists only. There will be many intrigues, but the chief focus of suspense is which party will act as a restraint on United Russia’s dominance. Will it be the Communist Party (CPRF) or Just Russia? In my view, the CPRF will retain this role.

Gleb Pavlovsky: The current campaign should be compared with the campaign of 1999, not 2003, since the parliamentary election is once again a de facto prelude to the presidential election. The difference between 1999 and 2007 primarily concerns the figure and political position of the president approaching the end of his second constitutional term. Boris Yeltsin’s position was practically catastrophic, in terms of his personal popularity and the state’s stability. In contrast, Vladimir Putin is completing his second term at the peak of his popularity. Support for Putin is higher now than at the start or in the middle of his period in office. What this means for the parliamentary campaign is that the parties effectively have no choice but to propose the kind of political system that ensures continuity for Putin’s policy course.

Valery Khomyakov: Each election campaign in Russia has its own rules of the game, and never have two consecutive election campaigns used the same rules. The key distinction of the 2007 campaign is that the Duma election will use a proportional voting system for the first time. If we compare this year’s campaign to 1999 – the present situation is the polar opposite, of course. Back then there was a kind of vacuum in central authority: the outgoing president, Boris Yeltsin, wasn’t popular, while the prime minister and presidential candidate, Vladimir Putin, was a political unknown. But now we have a strong, powerful, popular, influential leader – and the whole campaign will be structured around attitudes to Putin’s policy course. What’s more, in 1999 the key question on the campaign agenda was the confrontation between Moscow and the regions, as represented by OVR and Unity. And in contrast to the 2003 campaign, it seems unlikely that anyone will be able to fill the nationalist-patriotic niche this year.

Question: What will be the major campaign issues this year?

Vyacheslav Nikonov: As a rule, Duma campaigns don’t produce any new issues, and the campaigns as such focus entirely on personalities, not ideology. In general, parliamentary elections no longer involve debates about where our country is heading. So the range of issues will be narrower, and focused on economic policy – roughly speaking, how the money in the Stabilization Fund should be spent. The role of the state will also be discussed: exactly what the state should control in our society. There will be a lot of populism, of course, since the state now has considerable financial capacities, and campaign participants will strive to promise to hand out everything they can, very generously, like Father Christmas.

Dmitri Oreshkin: The topic of social justice and stability is very prominent, but in reality it’s not all that important – since people are focused on their own problems, and it’s a very good thing that they are finally able to solve their problems themselves. Well, Just Russia will obviously talk about social justice, and United Russia will talk of patriotism and consolidating our forces for a breakthrough, and being surrounded by enemies. All this is fairly transparent. Personally, I don’t expect to see anything radically new: why should the parties make an effort, when voting is primarily controlled by regional elites, not voters themselves.

Dmitri Orlov: The big issue in 2003 was nationalism – with some assistance from the Motherland (Rodina) bloc. In the present election cycle, the big issue will be social justice and how Russia’s leading parties intend to address it. They will discuss the problem of distributing revenues, equal opportunities, wages and pensions.

Gleb Pavlovsky: I have already mentioned one of the central issues: the changing role and status of Vladimir Putin. And it’s incorrect to call this the “successor issue” – strictly speaking, the next president is the successor to the previous president, no matter who they are. Logically, however, there cannot be a successor to Putin in his role as national leader. I think Putin himself will retain this role, filling it completely, in some sense. Later on, in the course of time, we shall simply have a normally-functioning state in which presidents don’t necessarily have to be national leaders.

I believe that the second issue is what Putin has formulated as Russia’s two greatest domestic problems. He has said that our traditional problems of “fools and roads” have been replaced by two others: incompetence and corruption. A lack of competence is obvious among officials and bureaucrats at many levels – right up to the federal government level. And the extent of corruption at all levels is unprecedented. Our society doesn’t want to tolerate this any longer.

The third campaign issue will be foreign policy. The fourth will focus on creating a new kind of economy, an economy for the future. Thus, the big issues are as follows: striving for competence in the state apparatus, cleansing the state of corrupt elements, then creating an economy of the future, a knowledge-based and innovation-driven economy, and in relations with the outside world – handling our own strength sensibly, and containing American expansion.

Valery Khomyakov: The main agenda for the campaign of 2007 hasn’t become clear yet, but I hope that the central issue will be a phenomenon that everyone is tired of: the omnipotence of our bureaucracy. Not federal public servants, primarily, but bureaucrats at the municipal level – ordinary citizens have to deal with them on a daily basis, and these bureaucrats fear almost nothing at all. It’s also important that the main item on the agenda for this election campaign should be the debureaucratization of Russia. The anti-bureaucracy revolution must happen! It seems to me that even Vladimir Putin would find it fairly interesting to participate in this kind of agenda. I’m sure he would shape it, as he did in 2003.

Question: Do you think we’ll see any new varieties of dirty campaign tactics as the parties fight for the Duma?

Vyacheslav Nikonov: Yes, I think some new political techniques will emerge.

Dmitri Oreshkin: I don’t think it’s possible to invent any radically new dirty tactics – everything has already been done, to some extent. The situation is now stable, with power controlled by specific regional elites, and the regional elites have an interest in ensuring that United Russia gets sufficient voter support. Thus, it’s in the interests of regional elites to prevent any unpredictable or destabilizing factors. We also have what is known as the Putin consensus, based on striving to preserve the status quo: each elite group would like to increase its influence, but the risk of losing everything by getting involved in serious political battles substantially outweighs the potential prize in those battles. So the elites prefer to act covertly, cautiously, not making a fuss in public, and politics is actually moving into a secretive, behind-the-scenes phases.

Dmitri Orlov: Since this election is party-based, and parties are held responsible for the actions of their regional candidates, the election outcome is less dependent on any techniques. I think there will be fewer cases of dirty tactics than in the past – this will be a cleaner campaign.

Gleb Pavlovsky: Dirty tactics will assume their normal place: the resort of weak players. Only the marginal participants resort to such technques these days.

Valery Khomyakov: We see dirty tactics used in every campaign, because political consultants and strategists see a federal election as an opportunity to try out the tactics they have practised in regional elections. At this stage, I wouldn’t try to predict what kind of techniques these will be, since techniques are continually evolving. Hoary old tactics like using “doubles” of candidates are moving into the past, and I think this year’s techniques will be more sophisticated.