#16 - JRL 7062
February 14, 2003
Kremlin Tightening Reins Ahead of Polls
By Natalia Yefimova
Worried that its most loyal party won't manage to sweep the December parliamentary elections, the Kremlin is trying to help it along by squeezing out competitors from the middle of the political spectrum.
Addressing a Justice Ministry meeting on the new law regulating political parties, a member of the presidential administration asked election officials to weed out small centrist parties that could hurt the chances of President Vladimir Putin's main supporters.
Out of some 30 full-fledged parties, "only two or three are in the opposition, with the rest in the center of the political spectrum," Leonid Ivlev, a deputy head of the Kremlin's domestic politics directorate, said Jan. 29. "That means 25 parties will be jostling one another, winning half a percent each and taking away votes from the key political force that will make up the real support base of presidential power."
Ivlev did not name names, but the reference to the pro-presidential United Russia party was clear.
The law on parties passed in June 2001 was part of a broader effort by federal authorities to tighten the reins on the country's political life, a chaotic jumble of nearly 200 political groups, many of them front organizations for private interests.
But legislators and justice officials now complain that, in practice, the law has not made it that much harder to create a party. And with State Duma elections less than a year away, and presidential polls close on their heels, the Kremlin is eager to introduce some order.
People are good at getting around the law, Ivlev said, and "party-building has turned into a form of business."
Ivlev asked election officials to be tougher on new parties, especially when checking their regional offices, and to be on the lookout for parties whose membership figures hover just above the permissible minimum -- a sign that they may be fly-by-night groups created for short-term gain.
Under the law, political parties must have no fewer than 10,000 members nationwide, with local branches of 100 or more people each in at least 45 of Russia's 89 regions.
As of Feb. 3, the Justice Ministry had registered 50 parties: Thirty are eligible to participate in elections; 20 have six months to prove they have the minimum number of regional branches required by the law.
But of these 50, only a handful will clear the 5 percent barrier to make it into the Duma -- and while opinion polls suggest United Russia has a strong hold on second place, they also indicate that its popularity has been waning.
At present, the Duma is a patchwork of nine political organizations, called factions or groups, all of which have transformed themselves into political parties. United Russia was born of a merger between two powerful factions, Unity and Fatherland-All Russia, which make up the pro-Kremlin majority together with Russia's Regions and People's Deputy.
According to the latest data from the All-Russia Center for Public Opinion Research, or VTsIOM, only five parties have ratings high enough to propel them into parliament. In descending order these are the Communists, United Russia, Yabloko, the Liberal Democratic Party and the Union of Right Forces.
But the poll, conducted Jan. 24-28 among 1,600 respondents in 40 regions, shows a dramatic gap between the No. 1 Communists and United Russia. After being neck and neck for months, Gennady Zyuganov's movement now leads with 24 percent versus United Russia's 14 percent. The margin of error was 3.4 percent.
VTsIOM experts attribute the drop largely to a new method for calculating the ratings, which makes it difficult to compare January's results with figures from previous months.
But they also blame the decline on recent personnel shuffles and the proliferation of "midget parties" that chip away at United Russia's electorate.
"United Russia was the only party to experience such a decline ... and it is precisely this party whose votes get eaten away by the numerous small parties that have cropped up," VTsIOM sociologist Leonid Sedov said Tuesday. He added that the number of voters defecting to other parties remains small for now, but the trend is there.
Political featherweights such as the pro-environment Green party, Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov's Rebirth of Russia party and the Pensioners' Party scraped together as much as 2 percent each in the VTsIOM survey.
Sedov said United Russia has been the hardest hit by "voter drain" because it has no ideology other than backing the Kremlin. "Its electorate is very crumbly, unreliable, uninformed and politically unstable," he said. "It was swept together as with a broom."
Oleg Morozov, head of the Russia's Regions faction and a top official with United Russia, questioned VTsIOM's ratings, saying that other surveys had yielded very different results, but agreed that minor new parties may be pulling away United Russia's electorate.
"It's only logical. Voters on the left and right more or less know whom they'll vote for. ... The main battle unfolding in Russia is for the votes in the center," Morozov said in an interview Wednesday.
The biggest change since the previous Duma elections four years ago is greater Kremlin control over party-building and elections, Guy Khanov, a public relations veteran and an advisor with the Central Elections Commission, said in a recent interview.
"I am not saying this is good or bad, but ... the presidential administration is very strictly regulating this area and is watching very closely over everything that is happening there," Khanov said.
As part of the effort to exercise that control, the president has submitted new amendments to electoral law, proposing severe punishment for campaign violations such as overspending and unscrupulous use of media coverage. Critics of the bill say it gives an unfair advantage to the existing political elite, including the Kremlin and its regional proteges, because the penalties for abusing so-called administrative resources are much lighter than for other offenses -- fines of under $1,000 as opposed to jail sentences and the annulment of media licenses.
While it is clear that the presidential administration wants to see United Russia go unchallenged in the center of the political spectrum, it is less obvious whom the Kremlin will support on the left and the right, Andrei Ryabov of the Moscow Carnegie Center said in a phone interview.
If the Kremlin hopes that two-thirds of Duma deputies -- the number required to pass major legislation, such as changes to the Constitution -- will be willing to support presidential bills, it is unlikely to place all its eggs in one basket.
"We're not talking about a majority concentrated on and represented by only one party," Ryabov said. "The idea for the future majority is probably that it should include not only United Russia but also parties geared toward voters from other ends of the party spectrum. ... This gives more room for maneuver."
One long-time party organizer, Mikhail Zhibrovsky of the Liberal Democratic Party, said he did not believe the Kremlin's effort to clear out competitors would lead to political longevity for United Russia -- a smorgasbord of sports stars, big-name political figures, bureaucrats and others, thrown together expressly as a pro-Putin movement in the 1999 Duma elections.
"You cannot build anything good, anything long-lasting, if it's done in hothouse conditions," Zhibrovsky said. "These people know nothing about building a party. It has been done for them, from the top down."