07.06.2009
Power and Parties in Post-Soviet Russia
№2 2009 April/June

At the turn of the 1980s, Russia saw prospects for evolution of
its public and political development from an authoritarian to a
democratic society along market economy lines. Historical
experience shows such fundamental changes require a political setup
where a multi-party system has a special place and significance. It
is quite natural that the establishment of a multi-party system, an
entirely new vector for Russia, inevitably encountered both
objective and subjective difficulties. Two decades of this
controversial process give an opportunity to judge its first
results, as well as various circumstances that have facilitated or
hindered the advance of Russian political history to new
frontiers.

POLITICAL PLURALISM OF LATER PERESTROIKA

The evolution from a one- to a multi-party system which reflects
different opinions in broad public circles began during the last
phase of the existence of the Soviet Union. It turned out then that
the political vanguard in the person of the Communist Party of the
Soviet Union (CPSU) was unable to handle the problems that
overwhelmed the country in the 1980s. The crises in all spheres of
life of the Soviet society, which suddenly shed its veneer of
prosperity, were eroding the population’s belief in the “leading
role” of the CPSU, forcing the party to continuously re-adjust
itself to new situations. The replacement of three secretary
generals (from November 1982 to March 1985) surprisingly coincided
with three basic trends in the then Communist leadership: the trend
for reform as seen by security agencies, personified by Yuri
Andropov, the trend for conservatism (Konstantin Chernenko), and
the trend for democratic reforms (Mikhail Gorbachev). The years
1985-1990 showed inconsistencies in the policies of the “architect
of perestroika,” his veering from one extreme to another, and his
lack of a close-knit team of like-minded people, which intensified
centrifugal trends within the CPSU.

The appearance of Boris Yeltsin in the political arena only seemed
like the birth of a lone hero. In actual fact, his personal courage
in confronting conservatives from the Politburo reflected the
resentment many Communists of lower and medium levels felt towards
everything labeled as “stagnation phenomena,” which lingered even
after the reformists came to power. On the other hand, the
existence of the Conservative group led by Yegor Ligachev and Ivan
Polozkov was not merely a reflection of personal ambitions of the
provincial officialdom, opposed to Gorbachev.

Along with the distinct erosion of the CPSU ranks, there emerged
another layer of fledgling political activity. Non-CSPU members –
in the first place creative intellectuals and researchers – were
becoming increasingly active in large industrial centers of Russia,
tending to group at informal public-discussion clubs. It is these
activists who raised for the first time the issue of setting up
Western-type political associations, other than the CSPU:
social-democratic, liberal-conservative, national and religious
ones.

The years 1989-1991 became a period of turbulent political
activity. The new system of election to the USSR Supreme Soviet and
to the legislature of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist
Republic (RSFSR) within the Soviet Union made it possible to
nominate non-Communist candidates and even outspoken critics of the
CPSU’s course. The Inter-Regional Deputies’ Group of the USSR
Congress of People’s Deputies and the Democratic Russia
organization, which emerged in the course of elections to the RSFSR
Supreme Soviet and which included many members of unofficial
associations, could have become a prototype of a powerful political
force that would rival the CSPU in Russia and even in the whole of
the Soviet Union in the struggle for power.

The activity of democracy-minded deputies at the above legislative
bodies contributed to the legitimization of the multi-party system.
In March 1990, the 3rd Congress of USSR People’s Deputies amended
Article 6 of the USSR Constitution, abolishing the CPSU’s political
monopoly on power, and Article 51 which now declared the Soviet
citizens’ right to set up political parties. In October 1990, the
newly adopted law On Public Associations set the guidelines for
legal regulation of political activities. It allowed political
parties to participate in the work of legislative and executive
bodies. Beginning from January 1, 1991, the above law became
effective, which gave an impulse towards formalizing the
multi-party system.

In the last year of the Soviet Union’s existence, those who called
themselves democrats failed to unite and establish one political
party. The death in December 1989 of Andrei Sakharov, the moral
leader of new forces, and Boris Yeltsin’s de-facto refusal to head
Democratic Russia reduced the latter to an odd mix of small groups
led by increasingly ambitious politicians. Yeltsin believed that he
had come to power in Russia (initially as chairman of the RSFSR
Supreme Soviet and later, following the June 12, 1991 elections as
Russian president) as a sort of national leader, rather than as a
representative of the broad circles of the democratic public
opposed to the CPSU. Characteristically, Yeltsin, when announcing
his withdrawal from the Communist Party at the 19th CPSU conference
(in July 1990), explained the move not so much by his disagreement
with its policy, as by his new supra-party functions as chairman of
the RSFSR Supreme Soviet. One of his first executive orders in the
capacity of the RSFSR president (July 1, 1991) banned all political
activities at organizations and enterprises and thus nipped in the
bud the consolidation of potential members of Democratic Russia. On
the other hand, CPSU grassroots organizations that operated at
places of residence remained intact and later served as groundwork
for the new Communist Party of the Russian Federation.

Yeltsin’s move to suspend the CPSU’s activity following an abortive
coup attempt in August 1991 and subsequent legal proceedings
against it obviously did not contribute to the strengthening of the
multi-party system in Russia. It created a precedent for similar
moves against any political opponents of the powers-that-be. Those
who were ready to join in the development of the political system
on the wave of the amazing political activity of the population in
1989-1991, apparently changed their mind and had to consider their
safety instead. On the other hand, the Russian president and his
motley milieu promptly turned into a top state elite in the new
conditions. This transformation did not require a political victory
at elections or efforts from parties led by pro-Yeltsin officials.
The government of Yegor Gaidar, formed in the autumn of 1991,
mostly comprised not party leaders but bureaucrats close to
Yeltsin. As a result, Russia began the year 1992 – the first year
of its existence as an independent state – with the legislative and
executive bodies formed in the last years of the former
public-political and socio-economic system.

CHAOTIC MULTI-PARTY SYSTEM OF THE 1990s

The economic and political upheavals in Russia in 1992-1993 set a
poor groundwork for parties’ activities. On the one hand, many
deputies of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation used their
official capacity to enlist support in their respective
constituencies. They set up parties, whose names included such
words as “democracy,” “socialism” and “people” in various
combinations, and the ever-present word “Russia.” But it soon
became clear that those parties were like houses of cards, unable
to withstand even a moderate wind of political struggle. In
essence, the so-called “parties” were run by aides of parliament
deputies; the aides hoped to secure a good position in the
legislature in the foreseeable future, with the strategic aim of
making a career in the executive branch of power.

The permanent conflicts between Boris Yeltsin and his associates,
on the one hand, and the increasingly fragmented Supreme Soviet, on
the other, slowed down and weakened the formation of a normal, by
European standards, system of political parties in Russia. Supreme
Soviet deputies, in contrast to their original ideological and
political positions, steadily adopted tough opposition tactics in
the struggle against the powers-that-be. The Russian president
increasingly felt the hostile attitude of a majority of the parties
represented in the Supreme Soviet. This strengthened his dislike of
parties as such and of their participation in government bodies in
the federal center and the provinces. After winning nationwide
support in a referendum in April 1993, Yeltsin came to believe once
and for all that the parliament should be treated as a rubber stamp
for decisions made by executive bodies. Another reason for this
opinion of the president and his team was that the democracy-minded
camp, which had thrown its weight behind Yeltsin a few years
before, was in a sorry state: the internal power struggle in it
undermined the reputation of democrats in society. The economic
chaos of the early 1990s delivered a still harder blow at this
reputation: a majority of Yeltsin’s former electorate associated
the chaos with the notion “democrat” which sounded amorphous to
most Russian citizens.

The “hot autumn” of 1993 became a landmark in the establishment of
a multi-party system in Russia. The authorities, within a span of
several months, organized elections to a new kind of parliament,
the State Duma; they also hastily drew a new Constitution and
adopted it through a plebiscite, which coincided in time with the
parliamentary election. The new Fundamental Law obviously
restricted the powers of the legislative branch, and immensely
strengthened the executive branch, in particular, the presidential
powers. Feeling inferior, the State Duma, already in the first term
of office (1993-1995), passed a law on public associations in a bid
to regulate the political process, as participants in the political
process were only vaguely outlined in the 1993 Constitution.

The law, which became effective in May 1995, introduced the legal
notion “political public association;” it set parameters for
registering these associations and named conditions for their
participation in politics in the event of threats to the state’s
integrity or in cases of inciting social, racial, ethnic or
religious strife. Certain restrictions were imposed on legitimate
participants in the political process. They were not allowed to
draw funds from abroad, although the possibility of membership in
international political associations was not denied to them. It
should be noted that the above law never regulated the problem of
funding associations inside Russia. Later, this created many
problems for the activities of many political parties. In addition,
the law did not spell out the difference between “political public
associations” and “political parties.’’ This circumstance played a
role in the substitution of the development of a multi-party system
with the courting of the electorate, which is necessarily limited
by election cycles. Personal blocs were set up to secure their
leaders’ winning coveted seats in parliament. The blocs, whose
number exceeded that of parties, tended to emphasize the personal
charisma of leaders on the party lists – who often were not career
politicians – rather than the ideological essence of the movement
they represented.

The 1993, 1995, and 1999 elections to the State Duma showed
definite, quite tangible tendencies of voters’ electoral behavior.
Part of them, 20 to 25 percent, remained loyal to the Communist
Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF). They regarded it as not
only the defender of economic and social rights of the low-income
groups of the population, obviously infringed upon by the
authorities, but also as the successor to the CPSU, on which they
pinned hopes for at least partial reanimation of the Soviet system.
After impressive electoral success of the Liberal Democratic Party
(LDPR) at the 1993 election (when it garnered 22.9 percent of
votes), the support for Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s party fell
dramatically to 11.2 percent in 1995 and a mere 6 percent in 1999.
Initially the only party that appealed to nationalist sentiments
among part of the electorate, later it had to give way to others,
as other political exponents of nationalist positions entered the
political arena. In all, these parties gathered about 20 percent of
votes. Taking into account small anti-Yeltsin parties, the
protesting, pro-Communist and nationalist electorate made up at
least half of all voters in Russia at elections in the 1990s.

In these conditions, the powers-that-be, understanding that parties
play a special role not only at parliamentary, regional or local
elections, but largely determine voters’ preferences at
presidential elections, attempted to shape a Russian version of a
“party of power.” But since Yeltsin originally placed himself above
parties, the leadership of such a party had to go to a close
associate of his. Neither Sergei Filatov, nor Alexander Yakovlev
succeeded in forming a “party of power” in the period between the
1993 and 1995 elections. Nor was State Duma chairman Ivan Rybkin
able to set up a leftist party in support of the presidential
policy, especially as he relied on an insignificant part of the
provincial elite that was close to the authorities. Prime Minister
Victor Chernomyrdin’s taking up the role of leader of the “party of
power” looked more promising in terms of electoral prospects.
However, his Our Home Is Russia party, which came up with an
unimpressive 10 percent of votes in 1995, was unable to even clear
the 5-percent barrier in 1999 to secure seats at the State
Duma.

The situation was even worse in the second half of the 1990s for
those who might be termed as a camp of “critical solidarity” with
the authorities. Such figures as Yegor Gaidar, Grigory Yavlinsky,
Irina Khakamada, Boris Nemtsov and Sergei Shakhrai, sponsored by
Russian oligarchs, while remaining loyal to market economy
principles and democratic development, failed to find a mutually
acceptable conceptual basis for forming a united party. It happened
not only because of their orientation towards different electoral
trends, mostly in large industrial centers, but also because of
their excessive personal ambitions and their striving to sideline
their colleagues in ideologically close political forces from
leadership in the future party.

The search for a new version of a “party of power” was caused by
inevitable preparations for a presidential changeover. Initially,
Yevgeny Primakov was proposed for the post as the most acceptable
statesman not only for the Moscow and St. Petersburg elites, but
also for part of the provincial establishment. The Fatherland – All
Russia bloc was fashioned for the future president. But Yeltsin’s
closest milieu and he himself believed that the former prime
minister would not be loyal in his new capacity to the ailing
president and his family. On the advice of Yeltsin’s close
associates, Vladimir Putin was appointed prime minister, the last
in Yeltsin’s era. In the first months of 2000, he became acting
president. The newly formed Yedinstvo bloc was to provide electoral
support to him by lauding the success of Putin’s anti-terrorist
operation in Chechnya and measures to overcome the consequences of
the August 1998 financial default. As for the disunited pro-market
democrats, they ran for the 1999 elections separately. The results
of the December 19, 1999 elections showed a new electoral trend.
Voters actively (23.5 percent) supported the newcomer – Yedinstvo,
which was largely due to Putin’s effectively taking the helm.
Another candidate for being a “party of power” – Fatherland – All
Russia, led by the Primakov-Luzhkov tandem, looked less impressive
with 13.3 percent of votes. The KPRF held its ground with some 25
percent. The results of Yabloko (some 6 percent) and the Union of
Right Forces (8.5 percent), which enjoyed the support of the bulk
of oligarchs at the time, were less than modest.

A large part of Russia’s political elite regarded the chaotic
multiparty system of the 1990s as a consequence of unresolved
problems of various kinds. On the surface, this manifested itself
in barely concealed displeasure with the country’s top executive
post being held by a person who was unable – physically,
intellectually, or organizationally – to form a stable structure of
government. Therefore, the new Russian president and his closest
associates objectively had to resolve the issue of adequacy of the
whole legislative-executive system and determine the role and place
of Russian parties in it.

PARTIES IN THE PYRAMID OF POWER IN THE EARLY 21ST CENTURY

It might seem at first glance that Putin’s eight years in office
changed dramatically the Russian system of political parties. In
actual fact, however, he only gave an impetus to the trends that
had begun to shape during the time of his predecessor. The
instability of the domestic political and socio-economic situation
of the 1990s, coupled with a tentative and fluctuating foreign
policy, had certain influence upon the sluggish development of
political parties in Russia. The stabilization of economic
development in “Putin’s era” which improved the socio-economic
position of the wealthy group of the population, which made life
easier for the middle class, and which preserved “the threshold of
survivability” for the low-income strata – this and many other
factors enabled the authorities to reform the political system
without major obstacles from various opposition groups.

The power pyramid, which shaped in Yeltsin’s time, had the
president on the top and was framed with the presidential
administration, a generator of new ideas. The latter were
implemented at the government level and endorsed – though not
without occasional setbacks – at the Duma (i.e. at the purely party
level). The whole power vertical was brought to its optimal shape
during “Putin’s era.” Careful selection of personnel for executive
posts, based on clannishness (half-forgotten since Leonid
Brezhnev’s era), personal friendly ties, and professional
corporativity, fastened by oligarchic capital (a practice surviving
since Yeltsin’s time), helped to form a modernized power
vertical.

The party component, foremost the State Duma, could not become an
obstacle during Putin’s first term in office, while during the
second term it gradually turned into a support – though not the
major one – of the executive branch. Under Yeltsin, the political
setup comprised parties that supported the government, critically
or otherwise, but still they consolidated around it, while the
opposition was an indispensable element. Putin’s eight years ended
up with unconditional hegemony of absolute supporters of the
regime, with a slight admixture of loyal opposition. The KPRF held
the opposition role fast, but, valuing the benevolence of the
authorities, it did not wish to make any resolute moves to take out
the criticism of the government beyond parliament. The LDPR, thanks
to its leader’s efforts, took the position of “critical
solidarity,” held by democrats in the 1990s. The pro-presidential
majority was represented by United Russia, which absorbed the now
defunct Yedinstvo and Fatherland – All Russia.

As for critics of the authorities, such as the Union of Right
Forces (SPS) and Yabloko, the elections in 1999, 2003, and 2007
showed a steady decrease in their influence on the Russian
electorate. The SPS, which earlier leaned onto the middle class and
a few Russian oligarchs, gradually lost the trust of this group of
voters – especially business people in the center and the provinces
– who preferred to deal with prot?g?s of the “party of
power.”

Yabloko’s constant veering between the interests of the
“intelligentsia in worn-out shoes” [the term was coined by Dmitry
Rogozin who referred to the part of society that was hit
particularly hard by the reforms – Ed.] and the wealthy business
community undermined the party’s influence on groups of voters who
were potential opponents to the authorities. Human rights
campaigning, Yabloko’s hobby-horse, gradually lost its significance
in the eyes of voters after the end of hostilities in Chechnya.
Both parties – due to a persistent conflict between their
leaderships – never succeeded in resolving the problem of
consolidation at parliamentary or presidential elections. In
addition, the authorities skillfully chipped off the SPS and
Yabloko those functionaries who were ready to cooperate with the
ruling regime in line with the classical principle coined by
Russian 19th-century playwright Alexander Ostrovsky in one of his
plays: “Truth is good, but happiness is better.” These efforts have
been crowned by the formation (already under the new president) of
a semi-tame party, the Right Cause, where conformists from the
defunct SPS play first fiddle.

The 2003-2007 elections to the State Duma, despite all, possibly
justified, doubts regarding the vote-count accuracy, showed that in
the conditions of stabilization of the socio-economic situation in
Russia and its foreign policy voters tend to back the authorities
or those who have government support. Putin’s broadly publicized
solidarity with United Russia, which not only presented itself as a
party of efficient managers but which was in fact such a party
during the stabilization period, and the full identification of
United Russia and local authorities enabled the party to secure a
relative and later an absolute majority of mandates in the State
Duma. Thus, the State Duma acquired the quality of a driving belt
of the executive branch and effectively removed the conflict
between the two branches of power, which had been permanently on
the agenda in Yeltsin’s time.

The presidential administration also successfully implemented a
project for creating another pro-Kremlin party, Just Russia, led by
the speaker of the Federation Council (the upper house of the
Russian parliament) Sergei Mironov, who is very loyal to the
president. Just Russia is an amazing mix of former nationalists
from the Rodina party, ex-Communists from the Party of Pensioners,
and members of Mironov’s former Party of Life, which had a rather
vague ideology. The hybrid posed as a Russian version of social
democracy and gained support in the Socialist International and
other European reformist organizations.

Candidates and even whole parties that the Russian authorities
viewed as suspicious were barred from elections. During election
campaigns, the mass media, controlled by the government, regulated
the presentation of promotional materials of political parties that
were critical of the incumbent regime. Not all parties enjoyed
equal conditions when organizing pre-election rallies or marches.
Law-enforcement bodies nipped in the bud the actions of the
opposition which, in their very partial view, violated Russian
laws. Rulings by courts of any level were overwhelmingly against
the political opposition.

Prohibitive or, at best, restrictive practices with regard to
parties that had not vowed their allegiance to the authorities,
were based on the law on political parties, passed by the State
Duma in 2002 and later repeatedly amended. In defiance of the
universally accepted democratic norms, the law set a minimum number
of party members (it amounts to 45,000 at present) and obliged
parties to have branches in more than a half of the administrative
entities of the Russian Federation.

Biased checks into compliance with these criteria let the
authorities influence the legitimacy of parties that could, at
least theoretically, rival pro-Kremlin parties. Another difference
from the European legislation on political parties was the
abolition, under a pretext of combating separatism, of the
institution of regional parties, which could rival federal parties
at local government bodies. In contrast with the Western European
political practice, the Russian authorities did not allow parties
to be set up along confessional or professional lines. Political
activity was banned at enterprises and colleges. On the whole, the
law on political parties obviously limited opportunities for
Russian citizens to set up political parties that would express
public sentiments.

The partly artificial and partly natural decrease in the number of
political parties in Russia in the first decade of the 21st century
has necessitated limited mutual integration between party leaders
and top state officials. The 2008 presidential election has brought
about two equally powerful figures in the Russian political
hierarchy, namely Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. This factor has
somewhat loosened the rigid structure of a “presidential republic,”
set up back in Yeltsin’s times. While the president (Medvedev in
this case) has kept his reputation of neutrality, despite formal
invitations from United Russia, Putin has developed his own
know-how – quasi-party membership: he has agreed to become United
Russia chairman without becoming its formal member. This situation,
unprecedented in European political practice, is explained by a
desire to have political support for a possible comeback to the top
state post and by a fear of being identified with the party, whose
functionaries, primarily at the regional and local levels, may
become involved in high-profile corruption scandals.

The above suggests the conclusion that the Russian authorities need
these pseudo-parties to keep up a semblance of democratic
respectability. The authorities do not wish to fully distance
themselves from the party system in the hope that loyal parties
would be a sort of “safety cushion” in the event of a dramatic
worsening of the social and economic situation. Thus the parties
would channel the spontaneous discontent of the population into
moderate parliamentary activity. The authorities believe that this
strategy can work in the center, where political activity developed
at the turn of the 1990s. Of no less importance are political party
“safeguards” in regions, where local leaders of the “party of
power” have to answer to the population. Their role is akin to that
of a lightning rod – they must deflect spontaneous public protests.
To create a semblance of parties’ participation in forming local
government bodies, winners of local elections are now allowed to
propose candidates for governors.

Reviewing possible scenarios of responses by the “party of power”
to spontaneous discontent of the population during acute stages of
the economic crisis, one cannot rule out a possible split of United
Russia and Just Russia into smaller parties, which the authorities
may have failed to foresee. The oligarchic triumvirate – state
officials, business people (both from the private and public
sectors) and security agencies are unlikely to fully coordinate
their positions in a critical situation. At dramatic turns of the
crisis, individual members of this triumvirate may leave it and
propose to the population their own vision of ways to overcome the
crisis, posing as new leaders within the narrow spectrum of
parties. But this development would be just one step away from the
collapse of the entire power vertical, built by the authorities
with so much effort. Therefore the political elite close to the
Kremlin would try – if there is enough time for that, of course –
to find a compromise solution to reform this power vertical and
prevent its dismantling.