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From: Eugene Ivanov (eugene_ivanov@comcast.net)
Subject: United Russia: rumors of its death have been exaggerated
Date: Sat, 04 Dec 2004

Largely overshadowed by the presidential election in Ukraine, the 5th Congress of United Russia took place in Moscow on November 27, 2005. The major objective of the Congress seemed to be a reassertion of a more active role the party is going to! play in the Russias political life. Also high on the agenda was restructuring of the United Russia governing bodies. In its most attention-getting action, the Congress has dissolved the 68-member Central Political Council and transferred its functions to the expanded General Council that now includes 132 people. The Congress has also elected de facto party leader Boris Gryzlov the current Speaker of the State Duma -- to the newly-created position of the Chairman.

The media coverage in the lead-up to the Congress has not been flattering to United Russia, to say the least. The critics repeatedly pointed out to falling ratings and growing troubles in the Duma faction. They argued that a shift in the Kremlins attention toward other pet projects -- such as the Motherland (Rodina) party may undermine the party standing in 2007. Accusations are flying that United Russia is rapidly morphing into a clone of the form! er party of power the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

United Russia ratings may have fallen in the past few months at least according to some polls. The critics argue that the drop in the approval numbers is likely a consequence of the party support for the unpopular law on social benefits. Its difficult to agree with this argument. Certainly, at certain point United Russia will take a hit for supporting the government-sponsored bill. However, its not likely to happen until after January 2005 when the law goes into effect and its consequences should begin to be felt by ordinary Russians. Apparently anticipating this, Mr. Gryzlov used the Congress podium to claim that United Russia didnt consider the current government as a bona fide party government and was unwilling to share full responsibility for its actions.

But even with approval ratings at their lowest levels in months, United Russia still remains the most popular party in Russia. According to an October poll, 25% of the Russian voters would be willing to vote for the party were the Duma elections to be held next Sunday, the Communist party being their second choice at 9.5%. Perhaps, United Russia leaders should become mor! e apprehensive about their own personal ratings that seem to never exceed low single digits. This hasnt been an issue in the past as long as the President Putins personal popularity was providing United Russia politicians with a seemingly inexhaustible line of credit. But the low popularity of the party leadership may become a problem in the next Duma election if the political price for Putin to support United Russia becomes too high and he decides to distance himself from the party.

Some damage to the party reputation and perhaps to the morale of the parliament troops was done by the much-publicized departure of two Duma deputies one of which later joined the rival Rodina party. A dozen of other United Russia deputies were rumored to consider defecting to the Rodina faction as well. Detractions on this scale wouldnt by any means threaten the dominating role of the party in the Duma where it holds the constitutional majority. But its image is definitely at stake. The party leadership certainly hopes than any losses in the Duma will be more than offset by the gains in the Federation Council the upper chamber of the parliament. With 20 Senators having recently joined the party, United Russia is now in control of 87 that is, almost half -- of the Council seats including two Vice Speaker positions. Moreover, aided by a recent amendment to the law On the Government, members of the federal cabinet can now accept leadership positions in the party. Initiating the trend, Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov -- a prominent economist with impeccable liberal credentials -- has just been co-opted to the party Supreme Council or Politburo as some journalists call it. Should Un! ited Russia deliver on its promise to seek more active role in the formation of future federal governments, and Mr. Gryzlovs speech clearly spelled it out then the position of Mr. Zhukov in the party ranks makes him a natural choice for the post of Prime Minister.

From the very inception, United Russias standing in the State Duma hasnt been matched by its relatively poor representation in regional parliaments. The control over those is rapidly becoming a matter of a paramount importance in view of their future approval of the regional governors nominated by the President. Up until very recently, United Russia held majority in on! ly 20 regional legislative assemblies and was in minority in as many as 40 of them. This appears to be changing. In the six regional elections carried out by the mixed proportional/single-mandate system the election model that seems to particularly favor United Russia the party has won in five. The most spectacular victory came in the K! aluga region where United Russia has collected 42% of the vote almost twice as much as the rival KPRF and Rodina combined. The successes in both Kaluga and the neighboring Tula regions tasted so sweet to United Russia also because they happened in the so-called red-belt regions that for years stood as the Communist Party bastions.

Periodically, some opposition newspapers would begin circulating rumors usually quoting the sources in United Russia itself -- about the imminent split of the party into a left, social-democratic, and a right, liberal-conservative, wings. The Congress gave absolutely no indications that such a split may actually occur. In fact, its not even obvious to a neutral observer what political benefits the ruling elite could gain from the split. United Russia was created in 1991 as a centrist party supporting the agenda of a centrist President. It was originally positioned in the space between the Communists at the left and the liberals such as SPS and Yabloko at the right. United Russia has essentially marginalized the liberal parties by adopting many elements of their economic agenda. At the same time, KPRF was undermined by the United Russias populist stand on some dear to the Communists issues such as prosecuting oligarchs, re-installing old Soviet symbols, and attempts to forge economic and political unions with former Soviet republics.

The liberal oppositions failure to get into the Duma in 2003 was actually not good news for United Russia despite of what the opposition might claim. In a recent interview, Mr. Gryzlov expressed his personal great disappointment with the absence of the liberals from the parliament. This has left United Russia solely responsible for the economic policies of the government and made it open to the accusations of being ultraliberal and anti-social. In Mr. Gryzlovs opinion, the ideal situation in the Duma would be having rights, social-democrats, and a party of center the last one being obviously United Russia.

To position itself for the future, United Russia might have to perform an uneasy balancing act: to sharpen its ideological message without loosing its broad appeal to the voters. Declaring an unequivocal support for the small- and medium-size businesses could be a good start.