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Putin's Controversial People's Front

Vladimir Putin at Podium Gesturing
No other political initiative by Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (since the cancellation of popular elections for governors in 2004) has created as much controversy and has had so many observers scratching their heads in bewilderment as his call last week for the formation of an All-Russia Popular Front. The group includes diverse political parties and civil groups, cobbled together around the United Russia Party to confront an unspecified national threat. Why does Putin need his Popular Front? Is it simply an attempt to rebrand United Russia and burnish its image before the key elections to the State Duma?

"I propose the creation of something that in practical politics is called a unified civil front, an organization to unify the efforts of various political forces ahead of major events of a political nature," Putin told a conference of United Russia in the central Russian city of Volgograd on May 6. "The front should recruit into its ranks all organizations and people who are united by the idea of strengthening our country and by the wish to search for the most optimal ways of solving our current problems," he added, promising to put them on United Russia's ticket in the federal and regional elections. The following day Putin personally met with a number of civic leaders, including a popular leader of the Car Owners' Movement, Vyacheslav Lyisakov. "United Russia needs new ideas and new faces," Putin said at the meeting.

However, Putin's Popular Front project has been met with outright skepticism and even derision by Russian political and business leaders. Although some say it holds the promise of broadening United Russia's support base as well as bringing fresh faces into the party, most are skeptical that this is likely to work and that there will be a large inflow of energetic and popular figures who have so far shied from associating themselves too closely with United Russia or even Putin.

And indeed, most of the civil groups that have already signed up for the Popular Front are loyal United Russia satellites, like the Union of Afghan War Veterans, Russia's Women's Union or United Russia's Young Guards, with almost no "new faces" to speak of.

Many observers believe that the Popular Front has become necessary for Putin and United Russia as an electoral rebranding to offset plunging poll numbers for the party and Putin himself as recorded in recent polls (polling agencies have put United Russia's ratings in April between 43 percent (FOM) and 55 percent (Levada), while Putin's approval ratings have slipped to 53 percent (FOM)).

The rebranding allows Putin to distance himself from the increasingly unpopular United Russia party (which at least 30 percent of Russians now call a "party of crooks and thieves," according to an April Levada poll). He would also have laid the groundwork to launch a presidential bid, if he chooses to do so, from a broader political platform that would better reflect Putin's larger-than-life status in Russian politics than a partisan nomination by United Russia.

Some analysts argue that Putin's All-Russia Popular Front would soon have to enlist some Russian nationalists in order to strengthen Putin's position in this electoral segment and to deny the opposition the ability to merge its anti-Putin message with the emotionally explosive narrative of Russian nationalism.

And indeed last week, the Russian Justice Ministry officially registered The Congress of Russian Communities, an umbrella organization of moderate Russian nationalists founded and now "spiritually led" by Dmitri Rogozin, currently languishing in his "Brussels exile" as Russia's ambassador to NATO.

Many observers believe that Putin's front with Rogozin's moderate nationalists will serve as an instrument of control over radical Russian nationalist groups and help deny them a broader following.

There are, however, those who warn that Putin may be seeking to reshape Russian political culture into one of forced social unity, similar to the former Soviet system or even to Benito Mussolini's state corporatism of bringing all social forces under the control of one man. It is also noteworthy that Putin's front does not seem to include Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev, despite Putin's claim that Medvedev was fully supportive of the idea.

In his first public comments on Putin's initiative last week, Medvedev fell short of embracing the project, only saying, "as president I believe that this is normal electoral technology," and that it "is within the bounds of our electoral law."

More tellingly, Medvedev publicly warned that no party could claim a dominant role and that political competition was vital for Russia's future. "No one political force can regard itself as a dominant one," he said, warning that "if everyone decides that things will follow a definitive scenario, then our political system does not have a future," and that "all the electoral battles still lie ahead." He then went on to suggest that opposition parties may just as well form their own popular fronts to better compete in elections.

Why does Putin need his Popular Front? Is it simply an attempt to rebrand United Russia and burnish its image before the key elections to the State Duma? Will Russian nationalists, led by Dmitri Rogozin, be enlisted into the front? And what could their role be there? Or is Putin seeking to build a broader political platform for his possible presidential run in 2012, while subtly distancing himself from United Russia? Or is it a way for Putin to find a political position as a National Leader when he steps aside to allow Medvedev to run for a second presidential term? Or are there ominous signs that Putin might be seeking to socially engineer Russian society into a corporatist Soviet-Style model of political subservience to a dominant party? And why is president Medvedev openly cool toward Putin's front initiative?

Does Medvedev see Putin's front as a political threat, or could the front be used to provide broad support for Medvedev's presidential bid under Putin's tight control? Is the front initiative a sign of Putin's strength or of bad political judgment?

Patrick Armstrong, Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada:

Believing that Occam's Razor is the most powerful analytical principle ever articulated, I would try first to understand Putin's Popular Front idea by assessing the reasons he gave before trying to fit it into more elaborate schema.

Putin's two reasons were: "First, the State Duma elections will be held soon... And it is very important how the parliament will be formed. Secondly, frankly speaking, United Russia, our leading political force, needs an influx of new ideas, proposals and people in these circumstances" (note "and people").

The first reason ties into his speech in April: "If United Russia wants to be competitive in the political struggle with other public organizations and political parties it should create a competitive atmosphere within its own ranks," and "The 600 candidates listed on the ballots should be up for review and discussion with all voters in the regions and municipalities, not just their respective party members." The popular front speech is a follow-up to that speech.

The second reason ­ related to the first ­ is his concern that United Russia is stagnating. "New ideas" have been a concern of his for some time; for example, in 2008 he stated that "The goal of our party is to generate new ideas and projects and control their implementation. We need to understand public opinion and people's needs." He has evidently decided that United Russia, from its own resources, has not met that goal.

And it's not surprising that United Russia is no wellspring of creativity: its membership is drawn from those who want to be close to power and profit from that closeness. They wait to be told what "new ideas" they should support; it is not in the nature of power-seekers to propose new ideas: what if the boss doesn't like them? But, for better or for worse, it is Russia's "leading political force" and the team must work with it. Therefore, Occam's Razor would suggest that the popular front is Putin's latest attempt to bring a dose of creativity into United Russia.

Russia's politics are stagnating: United Russia is what it is; no "new ideas" will come from either the communists or Vladimir Zhirinovsky; Just Russia is a fading earlier attempt by the center to force creative tension; the liberals refuse to unite. This political reality will endure for some time.

It does not seem very likely that Putin's popular front will attract much creativity: now that the boss has given them a new box to check, they will simulate creativity. Bureaucracies the world over are skilled at adjusting their behavior to pretend to give the boss what he wants.

Ultimately the "influx of new ideas" must come from the bottom and that brings us to the infant state of Russia's civil society. Both Medvedev and Putin have spoken of this lack: Putin in his 2000 Federal Assembly Address said "Many of our failures are rooted in the fact that civil society is underdeveloped" and, eleven years later, Medvedev: "I think that bigger involvement on the part of civil society in discussing sensitive issues will do our country good. We have deeply rooted totalitarian traditions, and it will take time."

It will indeed take time, and a healthy civil society will not appear by fiat from the top. Until it appears and strengthens Russia is stuck with its present political landscape.

Alexandre Strokanov, Professor of History, Director of Institute of Russian Language, History and Culture, Lyndon State College, Lyndonville, VT:

It seems that Putin's idea of the Popular Front may have several reasons behind it.

First of all, it is no secret that traditional political parties in most countries are losing popular support, people's membership and direct involvement, as well as obviously failing to serve as channels for talented, honest and charismatic individuals to get into political life. It is enough to look at the political establishment in the United States, France or most other European countries, to see the poor qualifications of those who dominate the political scene today and how far they are from the real needs of their electorates. Modern Russia and its political parties are not exceptions from this tendency. We can see the same bureaucratization, cronyism, lack of new ideas and initiatives from Russian political parties, be it oppositionist Communist Party or ruling United Russia. Putin's idea of the Popular Front may be explained by his realizing this fact and his desire to shake up the political system and to bring new faces into it. However, the efficiency of this method is not guaranteed.

The second factor for this initiative may be stemming from something else. At the end of this year Russia, as well as all other post-Soviet states, will mark the 20th anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The results of these two decades are quite depressing and not encouraging at all. The comparison with first two decades of the Soviet history will not be in favor of the so-called democratic and capitalist countries formed from the previously united country of "matured or developed socialism." All post-Soviet countries continue to live on the basis of economic, educational, and other socio-economic accomplishments created in their "communist" past.

It is not an accident that Vladimir Putin was recently talking about the need for a new industrialization of Russia. It won't be greatly surprising if we hear soon about the need for new consolidation in agriculture and a new cultural revolution. The past 20 years quite evidently proved that the political and socio-economic models selected in the early 1990s for Russia and other post-Soviet states failed miserably, and only caused deterioration and degradation in every sphere of life. This realization about the "great failure" is well known to power holders in Russia, but they may come to two completely different plans of action. One may choose to stubbornly continue the same policies and defend them with the new "front." However, there is a chance that the Popular Front will be needed for a serious reconsideration of the future course of the development of the country. Which of these two options Vladimir Putin has in mind remains unclear.

These two aspects covered above seem much more important than what the reaction of president Medvedev to it is, or why he seems to be cool toward this initiative. In three years of his presidency he proved to be obviously inadequate for the position he occupies, and he is a perfect representation of this "great failure." However, it does not mean that he will lose his position and can perfectly fit into this Popular Front eventually, if the first type of plan will be approved and Russian power holders will decide to defend their liberal "reforms" till the end. Dmitry Rogozin may or may not join this coalition, and again, it is a relatively minor issue. But it needs to be stressed that Rogozin remains one of a few charismatic leaders who still has a political future due to his energy and enthusiasm.

Overall, Vladimir Putin again proved that he is the national leader who determines the future of Russian political life. It is only unclear what goals he is going to use his own leadership, popularity, charisma and political structures he initiated for. Whether he will eventually find his place in history as a person who opened a new page in Russian development and finally brought the country to unquestionable success, or whether he will only remain a popular politician from Boris Yeltsin's "times of trouble" remains to be seen.

Elena Miskova, Managing Partner, LEFF GROUP Government and Public Relations, Moscow:

The political motives behind Putin's decision to form a People's Front are clear and require little further elaboration. It is meant to maximize United Russia's representation in the next State Duma by resorting to rather unceremonious methods of administrative pressure, and thus secure Putin's dominant electoral position in the run up to the presidential election in 2012.

The front, however, lacks any ideological basis. Its political vehicle is United Russia ­ a party devoid of any ideology.

One has to engage in "proxemics" ­ the process of deciphering the language of public gestures and rhetorical blows that Putin and Medvedev are exchanging while performing their political tango.

Having called upon his sympathizers to join the front, Putin has revealed that he has the wherewithal to dominate the tandem and the nomination for Russia's presidency.

The Russian prime minister has also sought to intimidate the Russian president and has renewed efforts to salvage his personal rating, which, according to all opinion polls, has been going south since early winter, while analysts have begun questioning its "Teflon nature."

Putin has rushed to strengthen the only natural claim to his political legitimacy ­ the popular recognition of his unquestioned primacy in everything and everywhere. Putin has basically unmasked himself and has demonstrated that there is simply no time for ideological contraptions. It might seem that Putin's new "combative and militaristic style" contrasts sharply with his earlier calls for maintaining stability and for "sustainable modernization" without much public sacrifice. Now all of this is no longer important ­ "Everything for the front! Everything for victory!"

And what about president Medvedev? Has he bowed his head in tacit agreement? Does he show fear?

So far he does not. He bravely offers to all those not enlisted in Putin's front to get together and form their own fronts, hints at a possibility of joining a political party so that a president be a leader of a political force and points to the dangers of continued political monopoly.

Putin offers all real machos in Russia to approach the forthcoming elections and the political process in general as a viral reality show, like a cockfight. Russians are allowed to equate themselves with the symbols of masculinity ­ Putin or Medvedev ­ the way men of the Bali Island equate themselves with their pet cocks in a cockfight, as brilliantly described by a prominent American anthropologist Clifford Geertz.

Everyone's gone to the front while all other forms of political sublimation, like democratic elections or the competition of ideological platforms, have been deemed irrelevant and quickly forgotten.

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, Inc., San Francisco, CA:

It seems that sometimes people spend so much time "reading tea leaves" and convincing themselves of the evil scheming of this or that object of their irrational rejection ­ that they seek sinister and underhanded significance in even the simplest events. This is a slippery slope ­ at its extreme lie beliefs in diverse "Protocols" and such bizarre theories like the "staging" of the Apollo moon landing or that a certain prominent global banker was "set-up" by an amorphous conspiracy involving a hotel, the police, a district attorney, a judge and an African-American chambermaid...

The Popular front (to be accurate in translation) announced by Putin in his capacity as head of United Russia can only be controversial to those "wannabe" political activists in Russia who did not think of it first.

It is very characteristic and notable that Russian political groups, on the liberal side of the political spectrum, struggling for wider recognition, did not themselves think of such a formation. This factual distance from the electorate perhaps explains the poor results in elections for such parties as The Right Cause (which may soon become a wholly owned component of Mikhail Prokhorov's investment portfolio, joining his American basketball team).

The suggestion that Mr Medvedev's comments about the Popular front were somehow "cool" or "distant" misses the fact that legally the President of the Russian Federation must be non-partisan (Medvedev recently commented on this aspect of the Constitution) and as a specialist in jurisprudence, Medvedev is consciously observing this restriction. In his comments about the Popular front Medvedev pointedly hinted that other parties may also create similar assemblies. This comment keeps the Russian president legally in the clear of accusations of partisanship (which would have been made, had his comments been tilted in favor of the Popular front).

Realistically, the other political parties in Russia have missed the boat (again). There was absolutely no reason why they could not have advanced such an initiative earlier.

Medvedev is mistaken however, when he categorically rejects the presence of a "dominant" political party in a democratic landscape. Of course, in his political experience the image of the CPSU looms large, but the Soviet Communist party was not really a political party in the dictionary sense of the word (and actually insisted on not being such), so the CPSU is not a suitable example sensu lato, being a political deviant. In normal political life, dominant political parties are present in many completely democratic societies, including Canada, Sweden, Japan, France, and even on occasion in the UK and the United States ­ where parties have had control of government even for decades, despite the presence of competent, active and vigorous opposition. In fact, the democratic process aims at identifying a representation for the majority of voters, and then subordinates governance to this majority. The late modern focus on political empowerment of non-majority segments is a deviation from pure democracy. This aspect is separate from universal human rights, which must be generally respected.

The objectives of the Popular front have been stated publically (new faces, new ideas, possible Duma representation for non-party members). In our age of Internet democracy, such declarations are obligations and there can be nothing underhanded about these openly stated objectives. If the Popular front fails to deliver on its declared goals, the fact will become widely known and the project will fail. There is no room in this for political legerdemain, and United Russia and Putin know this. Therefore, we should take them at their word ­ there is no margin for dissembling here.

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