February 20, 2003
THE NON-PARTY SYSTEM
An update on political parties in Russia
Author: Olga Redichkina
[from WPS Monitoring Agency, www.wps.ru/e_index.html]
THE UNION OF RIGHT FORCES IS MOVING TO THE CENTER - AND SO ARE MANY OTHER PARTIES. WITH A CROWDED CENTER AND A GAP ON THE RIGHT, THE KREMLIN FINDS ITS POLITICAL PLAN DESTABILIZED AS ELECTIONS APPROACH. MEANWHILE, VOTER SUPPORT FOR UNITED RUSSIA HAS SUNK TO A NEW LOW.
BORIS NEMTSOV SAID YESTERDAY THAT THE UNION OF RIGHT FORCES (URF) DUMA FACTION WOULD VOTE AGAINST THE PRESIDENT'S BILL ON REFORMS TO LOCAL GOVERNMENT BODIES. "HANDLING SALARIES OF STATE-SECTOR WORKERS AND SOCIAL PROTECTION OF THE POOR IS MUCH MORE IMPORTANT," HE ANNOUNCED. THE URF HAS CLEARLY DRIFTED TO THE CENTER, THE NICHE ALREADY OCCUPIED BY UNITED RUSSIA AND THE PEOPLE'S PARTY. THIS DRIFT CANNOT HELP ANNOYING THE KREMLIN, WHICH CONSIDERS THAT THE URF IS IGNORING PREVIOUS AGREEMENTS. ACTUALLY, THE SITUATION OF OTHER PARTIES, CENTRIST OR NOT, IS NO BETTER.
Rivalry between the URF and Yabloko - over voters, financial resources, and closeness to the Kremlin - has simmered for a decade. As soon as any election comes along, the URF inevitably proposes unification initiatives. Members of the URF faction say that "it is much easier for the Kremlin to tackle us one by one" and admit that "success in the elections depends on whether Putin permits party leaders to appear on television." Until recently, however, the URF and Yabloko fought each other on the right wing. This area is empty nowadays, because both parties are fighting for every vote they can get.
To all appearances, the URF pursues a pro-presidential policy. It votes in favor on tax legislation, capital flight, reforms in the electricity sector and housing and utilities. Unfortunately, even the "consistent right-liberal line" doesn't earn it popularity. The party's rating has not been above 5% for some time already.
Seeing the futility of all its efforts, the URF reverted to some tested means of boosting its rating: populism. The URF began actively promoting the military reforms. Nemtsov made a trip to the Pskov Airborne Division to demonstrate his physical prowess there (doing more chin-ups than the soldiers) and to announce that "the president has accepted our model of the military reforms and formation of a professional military." All this ended in a fiasco for Nemtsov, however, when Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov put up a fight at the next Cabinet meeting and gained the upper hand.
Another idea of the URF - postponement of the referendum in Chechnya until after withdrawal of all troops and organization of an all-Chechen roundtable conference with participation of "the other side" - turned out to be a soap bubble too. Nemtsov's "Chechen" initiatives have always irritated the president. Putin asked Nemtsov to resign his seat on the Duma if he failed to normalize situation in the restive republic within three months as he had promised. Positions of the URF on some issues conflicted with that of the Kremlin and the Cabinet. In one incident, the URF disagreed with amendments to the counter-terrorism legislation that did not permit the giving of bodies to killed terrorists' families.
The URF drew up a Code of Conduct for the civil service and had the Duma adopt it in the first reading despite the resistance put up by the Cabinet and the presidential administration. Incurring the Kremlin's wrath, the URF sided with the communists and demanded an increase in the consumer basket.
Nemtsov announced that his faction would not vote for the presidential draft law on reforms of the local government bodies. Not because the document was much too raw and needed some more work on it but because "It is much more important nowadays to up salaries of budget sphere employees, see to security of citizens, and ensure social protection of the poor." These are good and noble words but they are "words of the left". The statement as such leaves the impression of continuation of bargaining with the Kremlin.
Andrei Ryabov of the Carnegie Center Research Council believes that "the Kremlin dislikes Nemtsov because of the latter's nature and 'his spirit of contrariness', but mostly because of his ability to say the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time."
But the Kremlin's irritation is not restricted to Nemtsov's nature alone. "When the Cabinet has some unpopular economic decision to implement, there must be someone on the right proposing a solution even more radical than the one the government favors," said Dmitry Badovsky, an analyst with the Social Systems Institute of the Moscow State University. "This someone will make the proposals of the Cabinet look quite considered and acceptable."
The drift towards he political center is probably ascribed to the failure of the URF to become a party of small and medium businesses (the objective it had proclaimed from the very start). "Failing to secure the support from the most independent but least active part of the population, the URF was forced to rely on oligarchs," said Igor Kurayev, a department head at the Social Systems Institute of the Moscow State University. "The latter began talking about social partnership and social responsibility which is quite in line with paternalist moods of the centrist electorate."
Fighting for the centrist electorate, the URF finds itself face to face with United Russia, which claims the honor of being a pro- Kremlin and pro-presidential party. "We have to show who is the boss in the center," Boris Gryzlov said. While demanding a dominant position in the center, the United Russia does all it can to forget its problems with its rating. According to the National Public Opinion Research Center, support for United Russia fell by 50% in January compared to December, down to a dismal 14%.
Ryabov: The Kremlin is concerned about the situation of United Russia. Going to the polls with such a party is extremely dangerous. The lack of ideas as such is even worse than clashes in the upper echelons.
According to Ryabov, the slogan of "supporting the president in everything" no longer works because everyone but communists support the president.
United Russia is unlikely to be able to get the right-wing electorate the way it intended last autumn. At least because right- wing parties are out to get its own electorate now. United Russia became alarmed to the point when it promised to come up with some ideology. "It is going to be centrist ideology with elements of conservatism," to quote Mayor of Moscow Yuri Luzhkov. There is no ideology for the time being and the party is trying to bolster its positions in the regions. Santa Claus became a party member on the initiative of General Council Chairman Alexander Bespalov. A beauty contest was organized for party members in Mary El. The United Russia branch in Kabardino-Balkaria paid for the trip of over 130 pilgrims to Mecca.
In fact, there are other organizations seeking a place in the political center. Gennadi Raikov's People's Party is one. Raikov never misses a chance to remind everyone within earshot of "relations of allies" with United Russia but the relations between the allies have clearly deteriorated. When Dmitry Rogozin, Chairman of the International Committee of the Duma, defected the People's Deputy faction for the Unity, his defection did not improve things either.
Raikov is insecure and is out to make things for him as easy as possible. Late last week he moved that the parliament revise the procedure of getting into the Duma for political parties. According to Raikov, when a party polls at least 1% on party lists (and the rating of his People's Party has never exceeded 1%) and wins over 23 mandates in single-mandate districts or 5% of the deputy corps in general, it is the top name on the party list who will enter the Duma (that means Raikov himself). The People's Party resolved to abandon party lists and concentrate on single-mandate districts, but even this strategy requires ideology. The People's Party chose reforms to the electricity sector and financial powers of local government bodies. In other words, this is another "party of social protection" on the list. It means that the People's Party will be after United Russia's voters too - even though Raikov himself repeats over and over that the communists are the only enemy of his party.
The Communist Party, in its turn, resolved to do away with dissent. It would not tolerate any "independence" on the eve of the election.
The scandal over Gennadi Semigin, the "party wallet" and Chairman of the Executive Council of the People's Patriotic Union of Russia, is a vivid example. Zyuganov and his cohorts called Semigin a "Kremlin mole" and accused him of having contacts with Boris Berezovsky, who had allegedly set into motion a devious intrigue aimed at "splitting the left movement".
Nature doesn't tolerate void. With communists out of the picture rooting out dissent and forgetting about voters, others never leave voters out of the focus of attention. The matter doesn't concern tame Tyulkin and Anpilov alone. There is also some aggressive organizations like the National State Party, officially registered by the Justice Ministry recently. The left wing is covered by Vladimir Zhirinovsky - who continues to surprise voters with the idea of a World Patriotic Congress, and abuse directed at the US president, and his unexpected friendship with Israel.
In short, all the more or less important political parties are roaming the bountiful field of political centrism. Leonid Ivlev, deputy chief of the internal policy directorate of the presidential administration, complains that the Justice Ministry has registered 30 organizations in all, the majority of them centrists who will fight one another tooth and nail in the election. Only two registered parties represent the opposition.
The crowded center and barren right wing will result in a situation where the government will be the only reformist, pursuing unpopular reforms to the electricity sector and housing and utilities. The Kremlin and the Cabinet will find their right flank undefended.