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Two-Party Politics, Russian Style

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For quite a while now the Kremlin has been preoccupied with creating and managing a loyal ‘opposition’ to itself. Credit for the idea seems to go to Vladislav Surkov, the president’s first deputy chief of staff under both Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. In 2006 Surkov met with Sergei Mironov, the leader of a small centre-left party and chairman of the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house. Surkov spoke of the need for a two-party system: ‘Society needs “the second leg” to shift on to, when the first one gets stiff.’ The second leg took the form of A Just Russia, created from the merger of several smaller parties to attract the votes of ‘the left with strong nationalist inclinations’. United Russia was to remain the dominant leg, of course.

A Just Russia seemed to offer enough distance from United Russia to attract several smaller centre-left parties, some Communists and some Greens. But it gave Putin its full support while he was president. Mironov even suggested changing the constitution to increase the presidential term to seven years and to allow Putin to serve three terms. When it became clear that Putin wouldn’t do this, A Just Russia loyally got behind Medvedev.

But then Mironov started to take his role as the leader of the opposition a bit too seriously. ‘Information that we, and I personally, support Vladimir Putin in everything is outdated,’ he said on TV. ‘The United Russia Party is opposed to us, ideologically unacceptable to us, and has a dubious conservative agenda.’ The leaders of United Russia demanded that Mironov resign as chairman of the Federation Council.

After ‘consultations’ between the leaders of the two parties, Mironov was allowed to keep his position but had to sign an agreement stating that his party would support Medvedev and Putin’s ‘strategic course’. In February, however, he said that A Just Russia would not support United Russia’s candidate in the next presidential election. Within weeks he had lost both his position in the Federation Council and the leadership of his party.

Around this time Putin suddenly announced the formation of the All-Russia People’s Front, an amorphous organisation without a programme, structure or staff, but unambiguously loyal to the prime minister. That was enough to attract not only United Russia, but many trade unions, NGOs and ordinary citizens. It looked as if the ruling elite had lost the plot: there would be no two-party system and the new organisation would monopolise the political arena. But soon it became clear that the game is still on – only the players have changed.

Putin knows that United Russia is losing its appeal. It is too corrupt, too ineffective and too uncaring about the needs of the people. It is going down in the opinion polls, dragging its leader with it. In March, Putin’s popularity fell to 69 per cent – a figure to be envied by many Western politicians, but a huge drop for the Russian prime minister. A Just Russia was gaining support, and to give a space to an opposition party on the left, even a fake one, was getting too dangerous.

The All-Russia People’s Front is meant to ‘revitalise’ United Russia. The association with all those trade unions and NGOs will bring it ‘closer to the people’, pulling it slightly to the left. This leaves a space on the right for the new liberal opposition that has just been formed out of the moribund Right Cause Party under the leadership of Mikhail Prokhorov, a former owner of Norilsk Nickel and one of the richest men in Russia. Medvedev has received Prokhorov and spoken approvingly of the new project. It will, of course, be no more a real opposition than A Just Russia. Prokhorov does not even want to use the word ‘opposition’, to avoid any association with marginalised opposition parties that did not get the Kremlin’s nod. It’s even possible that in time Medvedev will become leader of the Right Cause.

Thus the lobster quadrille of Russian two-party politics.

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