The crisis in United Russia

Putin is still holding on to his popularity among wide layers of Russian society. But his party, United Russia, is not doing so well. In a series of local elections it has done rather badly. This reflects a crisis within the Russian ruling elite. The Communist Party (CPRF) has made some gains, in spite of the total inertia of its leadership. Misha Steklov in Moscow looks at the situation facing the country.

Following, but not because of, the Beslan tragedy President Putin abolished the direct election of regional governors. And the example of the Nenetskii autonomous district in early February shows why. His party, United Russia, could not guarantee him victory. And this was in spite of the blatant cheating.

The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) got 26% without actually campaigning. One United Russia campaigner admitted to a journalist from the business daily Kommersant that he did not even know if the CPRF had a campaign office!

The 23.5% vote for United Russia, a 13% fall from parliamentary elections just over a year before, was in line with other elections. In regional elections last autumn their vote fell by 8% in Khakasiya and the provinces of Kurgan and Tula, by 12% in Archangel and Sakhalin and by 25% in the Koryaskii autonomous district.

All this reflects a growing scepticism towards the official line and the beginnings of a shift to the left. It is noticeable that the vote for the CPRF increased, winning Sakhalin for example, without the CPRF really doing anything. In other words, if the CPRF conducted more active, socialist campaigns, both electorally and in defence of our living conditions that are under attack, the swing would be even greater. As it is, the proportion of left wing votes going to the CPRF is falling even as their total vote is growing, with other parties gaining, such as the former Kremlin backed Rodina (the Motherland) party and the agricultural party.

This latent reserve of opposition to the government found expression in protests against the monetisation of concessions to pensioners, veterans, the disabled and students introduced on January 10. Instead of receiving medicines or transport for free, these groups were given paltry sums of compensation by the government and told to pay their own way. Medicine suppliers refused to stock cheap products, which the government had agreed to subsidise, forcing people either to pay for what they could not afford or to go without. Apart from the fact that inflation is increasing fast and that the compensation was small to begin with, these reforms are reactionary because they spread market relations into social services and are a platform to open them up for privatisation. And people understood this without it needing any explanation. Main roads and motorways were blocked in and around Moscow, St Petersburg and dozens of other cities. In total hundreds of thousands of people, mainly the old, participated in these acts despite the winter snow and ice. The government beat a quick retreat. Putin has managed to deflect the blame onto cabinet ministers and they know that he could fire them at any moment because of their unpopularity.

This is the background to United Russia’s spectacular defeat in the Nenetskii autonomous district. It a thinly populated area in the far north where the previous governor was quite popular and, as it happens, quite loyal to Putin. And he would have easily won if he had been allowed to stand for a third term. But no, because of the oil reserves there the Kremlin refused to let him stand and sent in their own candidate, who came third. (Two local businessmen came first and second.)

In private the United Russia camp explained their defeat in terms of the fall-out of the monetisation backlash. This is correct. But they would have had this result anyway, even if these protests hadn’t happened, as the earlier results of last autumn indicate. They imagine that if they can only change their public image all their problems will be solved. The point is that it is not a question of this or that detail, or this or that party that needs to be changed, but the system as a whole, a reality that they slip over again and again in their virtual world of interviews while we are burdened in real life with one unsolved problem after another.

The political zoo

The crisis of United Russia does not have an accidental, temporary character that will pass if only the party could find suitable leaders and bright ideas. Just a glance at the bourgeois press reports of how the party did try to find suitable leaders and bright ideas illustrates this.

On April 19 to overcome the perception that the party doesn’t have any ideas a group of politicians and governors headed by deputy Vladimir Pligin launched a right wing platform. They explained the need to develop a party programme, which the party needs, admitting that they don’t have one since up until recently it was able to muster 37% of the vote on the basis of simply being the party of the President. They also criticised the government for using the security forces to put pressure on business. Two days later a left wing appeared led by Andrei Isaev, criticising the party for supporting the government’s counter-reforms. No doubt these people intended their declarations to be taken up by the President in his Presidential address to the nation on April 25.

The following edition of the weekly journals welcomed with open arms even this pretence of real internal party life. Ekspert carried an interview with Pligin in which he said it was natural for people to assume it was not his idea to form a right-wing bloc in the party, and that he consulted with Kremlin strategists beforehand. He concluded that the governors who joined him (Prusak from Novgorod, Khloponin from Krasnoyarsk and Zelenin from Tver) do not lack pragmatism and that by autumn it will be clear if the liberal wing will have succeeded in influencing the party’s programme and image.

The fact that in all this the only thing that was missing was a programme itself or some fresh ideas did not matter. A liberal United Russia would be nice they say but the article was not too demanding, adding that in the course of consultations and compromises nothing might be left of the liberal platform. “However the very fact of the declared position sharply changes the context of the existence of the party of the administration and all our party-political structure. Deputies will have to define where they stand ideologically, to discuss, to make compromises – that is to be engaged in politics in a way that we have already forgotten.”

All this is sheer fantasy – and they say that Marxists are unrealistic! Such words had become quite meaningless even before they had been published. On April 23 at the general council of the party Putin loyalist, former interior minister and now Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov suddenly ended the farce of internal party debate, arguing that bears (a symbol of both Russia and the party) don’t need wings.

Another member of the general council Oleg Morozov then explained that “wings” had been thought up by the journalists.

Why was Valerii Bogomolov (former secretary of the presidium) booted out then? asked a well-known journalist from the business daily Kommersant, Andrei Kolesnikov.

“In protest against ‘wings’,” Morozov replied.

“But if it is journalists who speak about wings it means the man resigned in protest at what journalists say?”

“You’d better ask Bogomolov...”

Kolesnikov duly asked Bogomolov who told him bluntly that it was “impossible to sit with one backside on two trains.” And he complained about Gryzlov, who earlier promised internal party discussion but now forbade factions. Finally he explained what it would mean for the party: “People from the regions have been phoning and asking ‘how should we divide into left and right? ...’”

The journalist commiserated the politician, pointing out that the only concrete result of the farce was his resignation. On hearing that apparently he was the only one who suffered but that this was worth if for the discussion, he added sarcastically, “Valerii Bogomolov knows his worth.”

Soon leading politicians, such as Moscow mayor Luzhkov, the new secretary of the presidium Yurii Volkov and minister for emergency situations Sergey Shoigu, came out to meet journalists “in single file – perhaps in case, God forbid, somebody suspected them of having wings.”

In a reference to party news conferences six months ago in which these very politicians explained the need to purge its ranks to cleanse the party, Kolesnikov asked them if there would be any purges. They were baffled. He then saw Pilgin and Isaev leave together and realised they were not candidates for expulsion. Pilgin set forth seriously the importance of Boris Gryzlov’s call to open up discussion within the party and his call for “social conservatism,” i.e. what he had earlier criticised in interviews published the following week.

“Nearby stood a few members of United Russia. Smiles appeared on their faces that without a doubt you could call sarcastic. Two could not contain themselves and applauded.

“There you go, another social conservative has sprung up,” one of them muttered.

The report continues with the “left” politician Andrei Isaev declaring, “And I will continue to defend my position. Within the framework of social-conservative politics both approaches can be included, both left and right... and basically, we’re not a country of individuals! Left wing, right... I already feel like I’m in a union of ornithologists!”

Then Gryzlov himself appeared to state that the party would take responsibility for road-building. Since Russians say that Russia only has two problems, bad road and idiots, Kolesnikov ended triumphantly, “well you could wholeheartedly approve of that decision. Russia’s two main problems will be solved at once.”

The irony here is tangible. And it is significant that members of the elite find it funny, including President Putin himself. He is known to read Kolesnikov’s columns (it is interesting for some people to read about themselves in the papers). You can’t help recalling the words of Gogol when a character says to the audience “what are you laughing at? You are laughing at yourselves.”

A look ahead to 2007 elections

The fact that the Kremlin considers that United Russia is useless explains why they prefer to win elections by cheating and changing the rules in their favour. One example is Putin’s decision to appoint governors himself. Another is the recent electoral reform. But none of these measures are a substitute for political credibility and in certain conditions the electoral reform might help other parties, particularly the CPRF, instead.

The main idea of the electoral reform is to exclude small parties, following on from the law on parties, which raised the bar both for membership and the number of regions that parties must have a presence in. Now parties have to receive 7% of the vote (up from 5%) to get in to the Duma. Once they are there their state financing will increase from about 50 kopeks now to 5 roubles for each deputy to make them loyal to the state. Election blocs have been ruled out, excluding coalitions so that only parties can stand.

The logic of developing the party system also led to the rule that all candidates must now represent a registered party, rather than stand as independents. One or two independent deputies in the present Duma use their parliamentary position to criticise the administration, which underlines the concern of the Kremlin, particular in the event of a greater number of opposition independent deputies getting elected in the future. However, the vast majority of independent MPs immediately joined the United Russia fraction. For them politics is not about ideas but about using their position to lobby their own private interests. And their support means that United Russia only has to win 37% at the election in order to have more than 50% of the Duma.

Given that United Russia is already becoming discredited and its ratings are falling below 30%, it will be difficult for the authorities to justify the party getting the percentage it needs in the next elections. One option for the Kremlin is to create a new party out of a re-branded United Russia. After all, United Russia is the new-look fusion of Edinstvo (Unity – the pro-President bloc of 1999) and Otechestvo – Vsya Rossiya (Fatherland – All Russia, a bloc formed by governors with an eye on the 2000 presidential elections), which in turn came from the party of 1995 Nash dom – Rossiya (Our house – Russia).

Of course in the long run such schemes do not solve anything. On the contrary this revolving door within the elite demonstrates that there is no independent political life on the part of the capitalists. Instead of forming their own party to defend their own interests they leave the bother of elections and forming policy to Kremlin apparatchiks. But these people don’t have a base in society. All their projects inevitably become discredited and they have to launch the next one. Yet the next one does not have any credibility or traditions and is correctly viewed as the mouthpiece of the Kremlin. Thus a new party won’t change anything. In fact it would just underline the endemic crisis within the elite, which Putin’s popularity disguises, and which Kremlin hacks hoped would help them to break out of this cycle and establish United Russia as a more long-lasting instrument. However, even if United Russia does survive it still will not live up to the hopes of the political scientists who artificially created it.

Another option, which has also been used before, is to have more than one party competing in elections for the Presidential side. Rodina played such a role in 2003, winning nearly 10% of the vote despite only being 6 months old at the time. To attract nationalists it had Dmitrii Rogozin as one co-leader and Sergey Glazeev as the other to win over the left. Glazeev then stood against Putin in the Presidential elections and was unceremoniously booted out of the Duma fraction, suggesting that the party would be controllable.

However now even Rogozin is flirting with criticising the government. Perhaps he is trying to gain at the expense of United Russia in order to strengthen his hand in using Rodina as a platform for a new party. Following this winter’s protests he and four other deputies announced a hunger strike. This publicity stunt did not achieve anything but it got an echo in the press. Since then Rodina has collaborated with the CPRF in initiating a campaign for a referendum on questions of government policy. And in local elections in Voronezh United Russia and the town administration and the media engaged in lots of cheating to defeat Rodina, which had a chance of winning (and maybe actually did, if not officially).

For the Kremlin Rogozin’s radical demagogy also has its risks. In criticising the cabinet and United Russia, Rodina are also indirectly criticising the President. Both options have disadvantages. A party without a base does not have any authority. On the other hand, a party that does gain an independent base would not be completely dependent on the Kremlin or reliable in carrying out orders. Even if Rogozin himself was prepared to do a deal with the Kremlin it is not clear that his supporters would tow the line.

In these conditions the CPRF has very good prospects in the long term. Firstly, there is no other left wing party. (Rodina and the marginal National Bolshevik Party are radical, not left-wing.) As a result there is no other party for the working class to turn to. At the moment the CPRF is not playing an active role in mobilising its support. However, this can and must change.

The leadership is currently holding back the movement but this cannot last indefinitely. The frustration and anger of the workers must break out sooner or later, and if it is not organised in advance then it will explode spontaneously. The protests this winter were an example of this. The fact that the CPRF did not initiate them does not mean it has no role to play in the future. It simply means that such protests will radicalise the party, which in turn will then be forced to participate in building the movement, in spite of the leadership’s resistance.

The referendum the CPRF is organising around is its latest example of parliamentary cretinism. But this is beside the point. The question is not whether the party is revolutionary now – although if it was it would be on the eve of taking power. The real question is: what other party can the workers turn to? The present crisis in the ruling elite shows how favourable the circumstances are, in spite of Putin’s personal popularity.

The main point that we have to underline is that revolutionary events are being prepared in Russia, and these will inevitably reshape the party. As fresh, new, young layers of the working class begin to realise that capitalism offers them no future these will become politicised and the only real alternative to the various bourgeois outfits that exist in Russia is precisely the CPRF. These new layers will not be satisfied with the present CPRF leadership’s position of continuous compromise with the system. The fact that a party that calls itself “Communist” manages to gather significant mass support, shows that the ideas of Communism, of Leninism, are still embedded deep within the consciousness of the Russian proletariat. On this basis a return to the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky will be placed on the order of the day.

The fact that the Kremlin is concerned by such a perspective is apparent in their new youth organisation Nashi (Ours). This is to replace the out-of-favour Idushchie vmesto (going together), which now discredits Putin after burning books and being known for paying activists. The new outfit will not be any better. It is even the brainchild of the same Kremlin hack (Vladislav Surkov) and led by the same bureaucrat (Vasilii Yakemenko). And it will have the same members too – who will also be paid. And burn books too. It aims to get a membership of over 200,000, based in every big city and to act as a counter-weight to any opposition youth organisation. Significantly, apart from publicity and analytical work their other priority will be street fighting. Two weeks ago they organised their first public action in which 60,000 young people wearing white t-shirts with “our victory” on them stood in Leninskii Prospect after the police had already blocked it.

A journalist from Kommersant, who got into their unofficial preparatory conference in February, gives a clear picture of this group – mainly 15-18 year old youths, many of whom were recruited from football “supporters’ groups” that go to matches to fight with other “supporters.” When the organisers saw the journalist and a young liberal from Yabloko, they took them to Yakemenko who said, “no such organisation as Nashi exists,” adding that, “there is only a group of youth who came here (a corpus of a leisure complex owned by the management of the affairs of the President) to hand out and who invited me as an older comrade to speak about the situation in the country.” The journalist was shown round rooms where activists of this non-existent organisation were divided into teams to solve tasks, such as the “National Bolsheviks have occupied an administrative building in your area – how to react?” The idea being that Nashi should surround the building and act as an extra security force. The journalist was then asked to leave together with the liberal, who was then thrown into a dirty pile of snow and kicked. In response to the liberal’s complaints to the mass media Yakemenko declared that he had not been at the conference at all!

Such an organisation will not hold back a radicalisation among the youth, but on the contrary is likely to stimulate it. Young people do not want to do the donkeywork for the regime (and only turned up two weeks ago because it was a nice day for a walk and an ice-cream.) If there are fights between radical or left wing groups and Nashi it is likely to increase the appeal of the opposition, which will be seen as doing something against the regime. The problem will not be the physical force of the state but a turn away from patiently building up the left on the basis of ideas and correct methods of work, instead relying on the publicity of street fights to attract new recruits.

The contradiction between the high ratings of President Putin and the generalised hatred of capitalism was always going to emerge sooner or later, either by a collapse in the President’s popularity, which this winter’s protests threatened to deliver, or by the elite making a mess of replacing him. While the first variant is still possible, and is connected with the price of oil and economic stability in Russia, the second is already exposing the weakness of the elite.

Without independent MPs United Russia must actually win over 50% in the elections to have a majority and this is at the same time as its ace, the popular support for Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, will no longer count for anything. Add to this the trend of its support continuing to fall and the perspectives for the administration are not at all good.

A crisis at the top of Russian society is brewing. And this is a reflection of the impasse facing millions of ordinary Russian workers, youth, pensioners... The crisis at the top is an indication of how things will develop in the future. A vacuum is opening up. It must be filled. And it will be the Russian workers who will take up this task, by rediscovering their revolutionary traditions of the past. In so doing they will also draw all the lessons of the Stalinist degeneration and return to the genuine ideas of Communism, the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky.