Putin and United Russia: party leader, but not a party member
At the United Russia congress yesterday, Vladimir Putin accepted the invitation to become the party’s chairman. He also confirmed his intention to become prime minister. He will take up both posts after the inauguration of the new president, Dmitri Medvedev.
At the United Russia congress yesterday, Vladimir Putin accepted the invitation to become the party’s chairman. He also confirmed his intention to become prime minister. He will take up both posts after the inauguration of the new president, Dmitri Medvedev. Both presidents – the incumbent and the president-elect – have declined to become members of United Russia. Analysts are saying that the non-party status of both the outgoing and incoming presidents means that Boris Gryzlov’s party still hasn’t become a self-sufficient political entity, so United Russia might as well give up on its pipe-dream of a party-based government.
In his opening address on the second day of the congress, United Russia leader Boris Gryzlov invited Medvedev and Putin to join the party. The opportunity to reply was offered to Medvedev first and Putin second. This seems to be the hierarchy that will be set in place for the next few years. All the same, Putin’s speech turned out to be the main event and Medvedev’s speech seemed like a supplement. At least, that was the impression from the standing ovation that accompanied Putin’s speech.
Delegates applauded Medvedev routinely – especially since his speech was so restrained. “United Russia is certainly a party of people who think along the same lines as I do, but I believe it would be premature to participate in its activities directly, so I will remain outside direct membership of the party,” said Medvedev, and stepped down from the podium.
Putin didn’t give a straight answer to Gryzlov’s invitation immediately. He started off by supporting Medvedev. “I don’t consider it expedient for the president to be the leader of one particular party, regardless of what kind of views he holds,” said Putin. Then he criticized the party, saying that it needs to be reformed. “United Russia ought to become more open for debate. It should be entirely debureaucratized and cleansed of people who are pursuing their own goals,” said Putin. After some applause, he gave a brief outline of the Putin Plan: Russia is supposed to become one of the world’s five largest economies, and this “isn’t just somebody’s whim.” Putin’s conclusion: “We must not relax.” And then the congress was over.
Stanislav Belkovsky, president of the National Strategy Institute, says that the major result of the congress is that neither the outgoing president nor the incoming president will be a member of United Russia: “If the president chooses to remain a non-member, it means that United Russia has failed to become a real ruling party, a political entity in its own right. It remains the Kremlin’s tool for tactical objectives.” Belkovsky maintains that decisions will continue to be made in the Kremlin – not in Government House. “Putin gets the comfortable and undemanding office of party chairman,” says Belkovsky, predicting that Prime Minister Putin will soon find himself facing criticism over socio-economic policy. “With this kind of legacy, our economy can hardly hope to escape the consequences of the global crisis – but the level of criticism can be reduced, by methods including the use of United Russia as a public structure.”
Independent political analyst Dmitri Oreshkin suggests that Putin’s leadership of the Cabinet and United Russia is the result of lobbying by that part of his team which really wanted Putin to stay on for a third term. “They’re letting Putin step down from the presidency on the condition that he keeps hold of the levers of power,” says Oreshkin.
And United Russia’s pipe-dream of a party-based government hasn’t come true after all. “The government will be formed by Putin and Medvedev. The latter will have a quota of appointments. And there’s no place for United Russia in this tandem,” says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Political Techniques Center. He suggests that Putin’s decision to become the party leader amounts to setting up a potential safeguard solution for the future: Putin has effectively steered United Russia even without holding the office of chairman, but informal agreements aren’t very effective in Russia, and Putin has decided to make United Russia’s subordination formal – just in case.