The national leader: is the pro-Putin campaign serious?

A forum of Putin-supporters will be held in Moscow on November 21: this is the culmination of a pro-Putin campaign organized across Russia’s regions in October and November. Putin himself is expected to attend the forum, where he will be handed a petition calling on him not to quit politics.

President Vladimir Putin received the United Russia party’s leaders at his Zavidovo residence on Saturday, November 17. The occasion was the closing session of the fourth Duma, and the main topic of discussion was the election for the fifth Duma. Putin managed to portray the meeting as a conversation between the head of state and an ordinary party – even though he is heading this particular party’s candidate list.

Thus, Putin made it clear to his guests that although he has consented to head their election campaign, he still doesn’t want the public to identify him with United Russia. At a press conference after the meeting, United Russia leader Boris Gryzlov immediately emphasized that one of the party’s chief objectives, even more than winning the election, is to preserve Putin’s “national leader” status. A forum of Putin-supporters will be held in Moscow on Wednesday, November 21: this is the culmination of a pro-Putin campaign organized across Russia’s regions in October and November. Putin himself is expected to attend the forum, where he will be handed a petition calling on him not to quit politics and to ensure continuity in government.

A nationwide forum of initiative groups, held in the city of Tver on November 15, adopted an appeal to the president not to leave politics. In fact, this idea has been discussed in circles close to the Kremlin since the start of the year.

The first to speak of Putin as a national leader was political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky, known for his close links to the Kremlin. He mentioned this back in February, in his analysis of Putin’s annual press conference. Putin had been expected to give some sort of farewell speech – but what he delivered, according to Pavlovsky, was a speech from a person who “stated confidently, justifiably, prosaically, and not at all arrogantly that he is Russia’s leading politician and that he knows what should be done and how to do it.”

Gryzlov’s statements after the Zavidovo meeting essentially repeated the arguments in a recent article by United Russia’s ethnic policy coordinator, Abdul-Khakim Sultygov, who proposed convening some sort of “Civic Council for the Russian nation” next spring, after the presidential election, and electing Putin as national leader. Gryzlov repeated these arguments even though intra-party debates have criticized Sultygov’s article as unconstitutional, while independent analysts have perceived it as evidence that the party’s political strategists can’t think of any way to keep Putin in power.

However, Gryzlov may have been influenced by several additional events between the publication of Sultygov’s article and the Zavidovo meeting. First of all, the spontaneous public campaign expressing confidence in Putin drew closer to its logical conclusion. Rallies, marches, and demonstrations using the “confidence in Putin” slogan took place in about 30 regions, from Kamchatka to Kaliningrad, between October 23 and November 15.

The campaign’s preliminary finale took place in Tver on November 15: citizens’ initiative groups transformed their wave of unanimity into a new movement called For Putin. Its leaders are lawyer Pavel Astakhov, physician Renat Akchurin, and dairy worker Natalia Agapova. At the Tver forum, Astakhov said that he has already collected almost 30 million signatures in support of the movement. If his words can be believed, that’s an incredible number of people – a fifth of Russia’s population.

But legal experts still don’t see any reason to take these initiatives seriously: the Constitution makes no mention of a “national leader,” and the president still retains all the levers of power. Constitutional amendments would be required to introduce a new state office or redistribute powers between the president and the prime minister. Moreover, referendums cannot be held in an election year. Leading lawyer Vadim Soloviev told us: “If there is to be any serious talk of changing the structure of governance, legislation should have been changed in advance, or a referendum on amendments to the Constitution should have been held.”

Right-wing and left-wing opposition parties take different views of the pro-Putin campaign. Liberals see Astakhov’s movement as a sign of a creeping coup. Leftists regard it as just another political ploy intended to boost United Russia’s election results.

Political analyst Alexei Kara-Murza: “In my view, this is a direct path to seizing power by unconstitutional means. If there is no intention to amend the Constitution, then this is simply a case of seizing power – establishing unconstitutional centers of authority.” According to Kara-Murza, the campaign is actually doing Putin a disservice, since this kind of talk could reach the level of “a criminal attempt to overthrow the government.”

Left-wing analysts aren’t taking these events seriously. They say that what the public is seeing is not the product of the elite’s efforts to develop a way to keep Putin in power; rather, it’s a ploy invented by political strategists seeking to secure more votes for United Russia. Analyst Oleg Kulikov told us: “I think this process should be regarded as linked to the Duma election. This isn’t a trap for Putin at all. About a year ago, groups in many regions proposed amending the Constitution – but all of that faded away. The status of national leader is not covered in the Constitution. The only way of giving Putin a place in conjunction with the new president is to follow the example of the CPSU – electing Putin as general secretary, with all state decisions being made at meetings of the ruling party’s political council.”

Introducing the institution of national leader – an overseer for government bodies – without amending the Constitution or transferring powers might worsen relations with the West, which are tense already. Such a move would make Russia like Lukashenko’s Belarus; President Alexander Lukashenko has used a referendum to prolong his powers, essentially making himself president for life. “In the European context, such a move would be a setback for us,” says Kara-Murza. There are bound to be economic consequences as well: establishing dual power – a president and a national leader – would be perceived as creating unacceptable investment risks, says Kara-Murza, “even for the most loyal Western investors, those who are prepared to turn a blind eye to authoritarianism.”

Voters are ambivalent about United Russia. Some are prepared to vote for it in any case; others will vote for it only because Putin is heading its list. The numbers of such people are fluctuating. And there are others who support Putin, but are absolutely disinclined to vote for United Russia. “The second and third categories of people required the creation of a pro-presidential project,” says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Political Techniques Center. He maintains that the For Putin movement is intended to demonstrate that support for Putin isn’t confined to one party – it’s much broader. Makarkin says: “As a supplement to the overly-bureaucratic United Russia, there was a need to create something markedly community-based. The new movement has its own task, so it cannot be all-inclusive.”

Igor Bunin, director of the Political Techniques Center, isn’t inclined to exaggerate the significance of this “people’s movement.” He says that For Putin is just another tool for maintaining control over the next president, the parliament, and United Russia. Bunin says: “Putin is aiming to have a personal instrument of support, in the form of a public movement, because United Russia was started with 1990s people, while the new movement has concentrated only the Putin-era elite. Its maximal objective is to be used for implementing a plan to keep Putin in power – but as yet it remains unclear how this could be achieved without breaking the law.”