United Russia is the powerhouse of Russian politics. At its base is the influence of the paternal Vladimir Putin, two-time President and one-time Prime Minister, who is now once again returning to the Presidency. Officially, United Russia has dominated elections, especially at the federal level. Since its formation, the party has won 38-64% of the national vote in the lower house of Parliament, the State Duma in each election cycle. The smorgasbord of parties that vied for access to Parliament has dropped from dozens to seven, only four of which have been able to consistently win seats: United Russia, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), Fair Russia, and the Communist Party (CPRF). The “non-parliamentary” parties that are still nationally registered but have failed to secure seats are Yabloko, Right Cause, and Patriots of Russia.
The nature of Russian politics confounds Western understandings of democracy. It is accepted by experts that Russia is not democratic, nor is it fully authoritarian. This type of system has stirred debate in the realm of political science, leading to the breakdown of the dichotomy that once existed. The result was the acknowledgement of new breeds of governance. Russia is sometimes called a hybrid regime, or semi-authoritarian regime. Semi-authoritarian regimes are usually defined as regimes which have stalled along the path to democracy, but still have democratic institutions; e.g. elections, courts, and some free media outlets. In practice, however, these institutions are largely defunct in such a regime and are allowed to exist only to ensure the legitimacy of the regime.
This brings us back to the case of United Russia, which has had a rough year in 2011 and will likely experience further difficulties in 2012. This is because United Russia, the party of power– the regime’s mechanism to directly control political institutions – was barely able to secure a simple majority in the State Duma during the last election in December, even among rampant claims of election fraud.
Why would the regime be apprehensive over these results, when the greatest threat, the Communists, only received 19%? The answer is that semi-authoritarian regimes, like authoritarian regimes, are not designed to compete for control. Authoritarian regimes have far more leeway in their ability to repress dissent, as they have little need for legitimacy. Semi-authoritarian regimes, however, are faced with the balancing act of serving the regime’s goals, maintaining legitimacy among the people, and most importantly, maintaining the support of elites within the regime. This article will explore the creation of the present regime, its effects on Russian politics, and the future challenges it will face.
I. The New Russia
Russia’s transition from communism to a market economy did not start well. Welfare benefits, pensions, employment, and infrastructure all rapidly deteriorated and life expectancy dropped drastically. Russians, who had for decades enjoyed a stable lifestyle, were faced with the issue of personal survival. On one side, Yeltsin and his supporters pushed for market liberalization, while conservative pushbackby the communists remained a strong political force.
These competing forces ultimately came to a head during the 1993 Constitutional Crisis, in which Yeltsin’s victory and the introduction of a new constitution changed the course of history. Russia was to be ruled by force and centrally under a strong leader and not strictly by the rule of law. Superpresidentialism was introduced to Russia. “Superpresidentialism” is a term that has been created for some semi-authoritarian regimes, as their leaders are not generalissimos, kings, shahs, or general secretaries, but do hold comparatively great power in lawmaking and the appointment of officials inside the regime. Liberal democracies often check this by creating divisions of power. In the US, for instance, permanent and randomly-timed court appointments and independent congressional commissions check executive agencies, and in France, which has a system of semipresidentialism, executive powers are shared between the President, as the head of state, and the Prime Minister, as the head of government.
Other political actors, however, were moving along different lines. Elites, mainly those who had risen in state industries during perestroika, had been cashing in on the privatization of state assets since 1991, accumulating vast swaths of land, resources, and sectors of the economy. These billionaire magnates were later dubbed oligarchs for their extensive economic and political power in the country. The political society of Russia from 1993-2000 was what political scientist Robert Dahl called a “competitive oligarchy.” At the time, the Russian Federation was a nascent state and lacked intermediary institutions, such as interest groups or lobbyists, which on behalf of citizens and businesses, bring issues to the attention of the government. Regulatory institutions which check the relationships between elites and government were either nonexistent or defunct, especially at the local level. Thus, business interests could directly pursue political office to gain an edge in markets. The most prized position was, in most cases, that of regional governor. Regional governors (also known as presidents, or mayors, if the territory is a region/autonomous district, republic, or “federal city,” such as Moscow and St. Petersburg) held great power at the regional level. They enjoyed the ability to appoint officials and award contracts and licenses, which were of utmost importance to businesses that dealt with raw materials, namely mining, agroindustry, logging, and petroleum products. Without approval from the region’s governor, these companies could be locked out of the regional market, opening up the system to protective or monopolistic action.
Regional governors, to ensure their positions, often formed political machines which operated by using administrative resources. Administrative resources are state institutions or assets that only the government controls. Examples of abuse of such resources include unequal distribution of funds for advertising and campaigning or unequal access to airtime on state television networks. Governors used these resources as well with near impunity. In many cases, they also called on other institutions, usually those in which they had the power to appoint or dismiss officials, such as the judiciary and law enforcement, to bar opposition candidates and parties. Media outlets were closed or reappropriated for use by the governors and their allies. Yeltsin, by and large, did little to check the actions of these governors, who were creating virtual fiefdoms in some of the regions. However, giving governors a free hand in the regions largely secured their compliance on national issues. This decision had a profound effect on the future of Russian political life. Average citizens were effectively sidelined at the regional level, which was dominated by competition among different groups of elites, i.e., interelite interests.
Russian parties developed for the most part without grassroots interest from average citizens. The separation of the Communist Party from Russian society also meant the removal of the countless social clubs, unions, and other organizations that could be considered intermediaries between the people and the government. This high level of socialization was overturned, and Russians were “atomized.”
The lack of public interest in parties, either from strong feelings of suspicion or other disincentives, such as intimidation by incumbent elite groups, kept much of the populace from mobilizing politically. Low political efficacy, or individuals’ confidence in their ability to affect policy, has also been a major challenge to the development of strong voter interests. Parties are managed from the top downwards, and membership is regulated stringently by the central leaders. Parties in Russia generally do not need high levels of membership, and actually discourage it. More members would mean a diffusion of interests and pressure would build to devolve power over party policy.. Such a result is adverse to most party leaderships, whose goals are for the most part self-aggrandizing.
Voters often choose candidates based on their personality rather than a solid platform, especially in single-member-district (SMD) elections.The importance of personality over party can be seen in the poor performance of major parties, especially at the regional level. In 1999, when national-level parties were well established in the Duma, major parties only contested a third of local parliamentary elections. Unity and Fatherland-All Russia both only managed to win a third of those they ran in. Penetration by major parties into gubernatorial elections was even weaker. From 1999-2003, only five incumbent governors ran for re-election as a party candidate, of whom only two won. This poor performance pushed parties to adopt new tactics to bolster support, even if it meant gaining support without holding seats. Parties would often informally form alliances, supporting one another in different districts while withholding their own candidates. Parties did the same for independent candidates who did not want to be closely associated with them or vice versa. Seats at all levels of government became a commodity to be traded for political and economic favors, and the boundaries between business and politics were muddled to such a degree that government, especially at the regional and local levels, was becoming ineffective.
II. Putin’s Rise
Putin’s rise to the national scene was nothing less than meteoric. In a country whose voter base valued personality and desperately sought stability in the wake of nearly a decade of socioeconomic insecurity, Putin, with the help of major media networks (especially from oligarch Boris Berezovsky’s ORT television network), was portrayed as a strongman who could revitalize the country. In short, Putin delivered. GDP growth averaged 6-8% throughout much of the 2000s, and households’ disposable income increased 10-15% annually. With the energy market booming, and because the state owned a large share of most of Russia’s natural gas and oil companies, Putin was also to raise expenditures for welfare, education and other subsidies and provide the public with a safety net that they had long lived without.
Semi-authoritarian regimes require legitimacy, but unlike democratic regimes, they do not acquire it through their institutions, but through their actions. Political economist Elena Chebankova postulated that the three key elements to legitimacy in a semi-authoritarian regime are economic performance, social stability, and nationalism. Russia boomed in the 2000s, society stabilized, and a sense of national pride was regained. Russians no longer felt they belonged to a third-rate country which had been consigned to the history books.
Putin delivered on these basic issues, and once his position was clearly secure, he made his move on the fragmented elites. In 1999, a coalition of two powerful parties, Fatherland and All Russia, formed an electoral bloc to challenge the ruling Kremlin elite. Leading them were the affluent mayors of Moscow and St. Petersburg, Yury Luzhkov and Vladimir Yakolev, and the presidents of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. This putsch of regional elite interests was only effectively put down by the mobilization of other governors and elites into the Unity party. Competition between parties denies the regime the political stability afforded by a system of power-brokering by a single party of power. Fatherland-All Russia merged with Unity, creating United Russia in 2003.
III. The Power Vertical
In order for Putin’s regime to achieve primacy at the regional and federal levels, it had to sever the direct connection between elites and political office. To achieve this, elites had to be limited in their ability to pursue office independently of political parties. Through its own party, United Russia, the regime would regulate the market of political office. Undesirables would be ostracized and forced to attempt to enter an opposition party or drop out of elections. Parties would in turn be provided secret blacklists of unacceptable candidates by the authorities, and would often consult them before compiling their candidate lists to avoid conflict. Political discourse would be limited to inside the party whenever possible, and opposition parties would be allowed to subsist on the margins to keep up appearances.
Breaking up businesses’ control over regional administrations and parliaments was one of Putin’s first priorities in his electoral reforms from 2002-03. Mandates stated that corporations were to help social development in their communities. Licensing and tax laws were changed to make it more difficult for governors to influence corporations. In 2005, direct elections of regional governors were abolished. To underline the degree of penetration into gubernatorial offices by businesses, by 2005, nearly 18% of Russian governors were top executives and business owners. The abolition of gubernatorial elections resulted in regional business interests going to the Kremlin to directly lobby for sympathetic nominations. The power to nominate candidates, in turn, provided the Kremlin with a vital asset for brokering power between regional elites.
Parties in regional parliaments were strengthened by a 2003 law that required at least half of one house in each region’s legislature be elected through proportional representation (PR) elections, in which only nationally registered parties were eligible to compete. United Russia benefited the most from these elections, taking on average 43% of the PR seats. Proportional representation, which ironically was shunned by President Yeltsin as being too risky since it fostered party development, was now being used to reap the benefits for United Russia. Emulating the success of the institution of PR in regional legislatures, SMD elections in the Duma were completely replaced with PR in 2005. The conversion to a fully PR system was accompanied by other major changes to electoral law, including electoral alliances between parties, the quintupling of the required number of supporters per region, and the raising of the threshold of votes necessary for representation in the Duma from 5% to 7%. These changes resulted in the failure of most parties to register for the election or clear the threshold. From 1999 to 2007, the number of parties registered nationally declined from 44 to only seven. Businesses once again responded to changes by lobbying for seats directly in these large federal parties. By 2005, in some regional parliaments, the number of deputies with ties to medium or large businesses was 70-85%. These deputies pursued little other than their own and corporate interests, often abstaining from sessions and votes to avoid conflicts with other interest groups, namely the Kremlin.
Opposition parties perversely chose to compete in a similar way, as garnering popular support was beyond their reach. They began wooing strong independent candidates to join their ranks, and candidates moved from party to party, with most moving to join United Russia, as its resources offered the greatest rewards in most cases. Some parties merged to survive, while others were dissolved. Rodina (Motherland) and the Agrarian Party were both allegedly propped up in the 2003 election by the Kremlin to drain support from the CPRF. The Agrarian Party merged into United Russia, as did Unity’s predecessor, Our Home–Russia. Rodina and a number of smaller parties chose to combine into a new party, Fair Russia. Two other ill-fated popular parties were Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, both of which had center-right platforms and significant resources, but eventually saw their vote counts dwindle. Disagreements between their leadership ultimately led to both parties running independently, which resulted in their failure to gain seats in the Duma in 2007.
IV. The Conundrum of Unity
Although United Russia gathered power around itself from the sheer number of politicians, businessmen, and elites affiliated with the party, it still had major weaknesses: its inherently vague party doctrine and its inability to address internal conflict. The overarching theme of its party doctrine is unity among elites in support of Putin. To discipline a clique within the party risks alienation of members that win elections, and would likely be to the gain of another internal interest group, whose preeminence in the party would spark further conflicts in the way of backlash from the sanctioned group, or further attempts at self-aggrandizement by the winner of the initial feud. Such scenarios also manifest when members inside the party attempt to block the entrance of another group they may see as a rival. “Sub-parties” or clubs within the party, such as the “Center for Socially Conservative Policy” or the “Statist Patriotic Club” and other more regionally-aligned groups, are even more blatant examples of internal divisions. The situation is a perfect catch-22 that cannot be resolved by action or inaction. As one author put it,
Both strategies are dead ends for the party of power, which faces a choice between evils: an amorphous, unreliable structure that will fall apart from internal conflict; or something firmer and more structured that will inevitably constrain electoral options and place elections at risk.
An excellent example in which such a situation played out was in Murmansk in early 2009. Deputy Governor Sergei Subbotin chose to defy the party and stand for election to the State Duma independently against United Russia’s official candidate, who was then the incumbent. The governor of the region and member of United Russia, Yurii Evdokimov, sided against the party candidate, criticized the campaign, and called on them to “stop disgracing the party.” The regime responded by mobilizing federal-level mass-media, which attempted to discredit the governor. Ultimately, Subbotin overwhelmingly won the election.
Another, albeit unsuccessful attempt to challenge the party of power was the alleged attempt to recruit President Dmitri Medvedev by Fair Russia, a splinter group of one-time Kremlin insiders which, allegedly with the blessing of United Russia, wanted to establish itself as a second party of power. This case displays the risk inherent in the system created by a party of power that relies on a power vertical, but fails to enforce its dominance through either ideological purity, as in the case of the Soviet Union, or direct repression of dissenters. Political machines like those that formed under governors in the 1990s attempt to reemerge, reassert themselves, and are difficult to repress. The governor can be fired, at the cost of public scandal and the resources and relationships the governor has built up and provided to the party, or the center can relent and make concessions. Governors also distribute their supporters among various opposition parties so that they can maintain a loyal base, even if the regime turns against them.
V. A Run on the Market
These internal factors of weakness are more likely to manifest themselves when the party is exposed to external threats that it can neither control nor predict, e.g., a rapid decline in state revenue. The state welfare and pension programs are largely reliant on state subsidization. The state relies on exports, namely of hydrocarbons, to provide this subsidization. The Kremlin became concerned in 2008 when the international financial crisis hit Russia especially hard. Prices and global demand for raw materials dropped rapidly. Given that 80% of Russian exports are raw materials and that these exports produce 30% of the government’s revenue, the country was left in dire straits. Russia was forced to borrow from international sources, not even a year after invading Georgia and snubbing NATO and the West over its independence as a newly invigorated world power. Raising taxes to counter resource dependence is likely to be highly unpopular with every part of society. Political scientist Kirill Rogov has argued that intraelite conflicts will most likely occur when neither elites nor the public are content with their economic situation. Elites, who are normally content with the growth of markets and increasing returns, may instead attempt to seize each other’s assets to hedge themselves. Using this logic in the intraelite politics of the party of power, conflicts can break out as members compete with one another for seats if they believe there is a scarcity of desirable positions.
The 2011 Duma election presented the best case yet of what United Russia might do in a true crisis of confidence of the regime in the future: nothing. Protests of sizes not seen for nearly two decades erupted throughout the country in response to perceived voter fraud. Around 40,000 to 60,000 protestors amassed at Bolotnaya Square, and up to three times that number emerged on Sakharov Prospekt a week later. The significance of these events was not the number of protestors. It was the general paralysis among the security forces, which lined the streets but did not break up the protests en masse. Rejections of accusations of electoral fraud by officials followed, even as the regime scrambled to make public concessions. Spin-doctor Vladislav Surkov, who served as Deputy Chief of the Russian Presidential Administration from 1999 to 2011, and who gained notoriety for coining the term “Sovereign Democracy,” was relieved of his post in the cabinet. Webcams placed inside of poll booths as a means of deterring ballot-stuffing were installed in time for the presidential election.
Putin’s regime had no reason to fear Putin losing the 2012 presidential election. It did, however, fear the possibility of him winning by a slim majority and was terrified of the risk of a run-off election. In a run-off, Zyuganov, the head of the CPRF, would have most likely been placed in a position to be recognized nationwide opposing Putin, which may have given Zyuganov and Putin a boost, as both would gain legitimacy among the populace from the competition. However, both politicians had much to lose as well. Zyuganov, who lost to Yeltsin in a runoff and whose polls were in the single digits by the time Putin came to office, could have been humiliated publicly; conversely, Putin could have also come under increasingly heavy fire for his unwillingness to participate in debates in the second round.
Russians have mixed feelings about their lives under Putin. In a nationwide poll, 38% of Russians said corruption increased under Putin, while 40% said there was no change, and only 15% claimed it decreased. Furthermore, 64% of respondents claimed inequality increased, and nearly 50% claimed to have had no change in wealth. There is consensus, however, that Russia was a more stable place under Putin. Also important is the distinction between trust in Putin and trust in his policies. Polls showed a considerably higher level of support for his policies. Moreover, when asked to choose their “most-loved Russian” in 2008, only 5% selected Putin.
Regardless of his flagging popularity, Putin’s relationship to United Russia is of paramount importance. When voters who supported Medvedev in the 2008 presidential election responded to whether Putin’s or United Russia’s endorsement was more important, 59% responded Putin’s was more important, 32% responded they were equally important, and only 5% responded in favor of United Russia. It is hard to imagine United Russia, a party which was built around a man, being able to adjust well to his absence – something that is indeed inevitable. Putin is, after all, not a young man, even though he is in excellent personal health. Assuming he wins the next presidential cycle, in which he can now serve two six-year terms, Putin will be stepping down from the presidency at 71. Regimes that revolve around a cult of personality are the poorest at transforming themselves and the most susceptible to economic fluctuations, problems with which Russia is doubly cursed due to its dependence on exporting natural resources. Because of this, a crisis in Europe, for example, quickly becomes a crisis in Russia as demand for Russian exports falls, along with the state revenue needed to maintain legitimacy.
Opposition parties have picked up on the scent of discontent as well. Campaign commercials broadcast nationwide by opposition parties were surprisingly negative, albeit lacking material actually critical of United Russia. Blatantly negative campaigning material can risk repercussions under media and extremism laws, which are enforced selectively by the authorities. They portrayed a state of affairs rife with corruption and filled with apathetic officials (almost always seen driving or alongside black European imported cars, with flashing blue lights, the symbol of authority on the streets of most major cities). The commercials also promised welfare for the poor, whose plight was the fault of embezzlers at the top. The slogan “the party of crooks and thieves” took flight as well, reaching such notoriety that United Russia was forced to launch a debunking campaign. This risk of being compared to the opposition as a party of oppression, as opposed to a provider of security and benefits, is the greatest threat to United Russia. A “run on the market” of electoral seats can occur if the perception that United Russia must truly compete changes.
Even if United Russia collapses in the future, it would not ensure a fundamental change in political life in Russia. A full transition to a liberal democracy is the least plausible scenario, as the nation lacks established democratic institutions, or even a strong liberal party. The recent protests in major Russian cities spurred on by social networking sites warrant further investigation, but are not a phenomenon that should be expected of spreading nationwide. Moreover, dreams of an Internet-savvy democratic youth movement are not reflected by polls. Russians view democracy in an entirely different fashion than Westerners. In a 2008 poll, Russians were asked to list the characteristics of democracy. 60% of respondents chose a “high standard of living.” 44-49% chose “order, observance of legality,” “equality of all citizens before the law,” and “observance of the political rights and freedoms of citizens.” Only 6-12% chose institutions and developments, such as “separation of powers,” “independence of the judicial and legislative branches,” “pluralism of opinion and absence of state control over the mass-media,” and “observance of the rights and interests of ethnic and other minorities.” A poll from 2004-2007 produced similar results. Russians focus not on the institutions which define democracy, but instead on the characteristics of what they perceive as a democratic nation. If we interchange the word “democratic” in the prior sentence for “Western,” this perspective makes far more sense, as the overwhelming majority of exposure Russians have had to Western democracies has been through goods and media, not laws and institutions.
The regime will likely fail given its nature of being supported by the identity of a central figure, its increased dependence on administrative resources to deliver electoral results, and inherent internal disorder. It is possible that a viable alternative to Putin (such as Medvedev, who publically lamented about the stagnation of Russia’s society and economy) could, with a strong enough grip on the center, enact reforms to the electoral system, establish a true party ideology, and spur the party to compete with the opposition on its own merit. That is to say, the party would have to abandon every advantage it now has and devolve the control which was the very goal of the party leadership to begin with. Radical changes are not beyond Russian leaders; history shows this. What it also shows, however, is a general unwillingness for the anteceding leaders to devolve the great power they have received; but this is not so much a Russian tradition as it is an authoritarian one, which is as old as history itself.
The most plausible scenario for Russia is a partial regression to the Yeltsin-era interelite conflict, which, enhanced by the necessity of national-level parties, would be even more rife with the mobilization of administrative resources against political adversaries. Alongside this conflict would be the intertwining and confusing aspects of keeping up a façade of party politics, in which the battle lines would likely span multiple parties and candidates. Such an outcome is not desirable for average Russians or for most elites, and it is reasonable to argue there will be citizen support of United Russia even as it crumbles from within.
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