Russia Profile/Weekly Experts Panel: Will Russia Have Competitive Politics?

There is little political variety in Russia today. Zhirinovskiy is content with the status quo: given the proportional voting system he can count on a comfortable living forever. The Communist Party has a certain base and it too can count on reliably winning seats. The “liberals” spend their time quarrelling, each leader discovering reasons why he cannot cooperate with anyone else and must form his own groupuscule. Anyone who thinks that this reality is the result of fiddling by the Kremlin should stock up on aluminum foil.

The dominant party in Russia today is United Russia. Since the Yeltsin days the people in power have sought to create a support party. In Yeltsin’s time, where this was done inefficiently and at the last moment, we lived through Russia’s Choice and Our Home Russia, neither of which had much longevity. In 2000, when it was uncertain who would come out on top, two pedestal parties appeared but, after Putin’s victory, they smoothly amalgamated into United Russia. Perhaps the enduring political image of these times was the Moscow election billboard showing Mayor Luzhkov and the slogan “Together with the President”. Whoever he might be. Thus, United Russia is a “pedestal party” whose purpose is to support the statue of Power. Putin described its purpose succinctly in 2008: “it is far more important that I, as Prime Minister and leader of the party, have the possibility of relying on the United Russia majority in the State Duma. This enables me to implement long-term decisions and promptly respond to problems as they arise.” But the weakness of it as a political party is that it exists to support The Team and it attracts those who want to be close to Power: it has no other raison d’être.

More recently the Kremlin created a second pedestal party – Just Russia – and, while it exists today, it is not clear that there can be two pedestal parties with different flavour.

Development of a more varied political landscape is also affected by the reality that Russian generally approve of the behaviour and policies of their leaders and because they agree with what the Statue is doing, they vote for its Pedestal.

While Medvedev is right in calling for more variety, past experience suggests that his call will not change anything. It must come from the bottom and that we have not seen so far.

There is, however, one thing that he could usefully do and that is to lower the threshold that a party must cross to get into the Duma. At present it is set at 7% which is probably too high. But, even so, on the 2007 election figures, the barrier would have had to have been set at 2% before the next party (and not an especially “liberal” one) got in. The only way that lowering the barrier would make any difference would be if the “liberals” could unite and then cooperate and share the 7-10% support that they probably have. But there are no signs of that happening. (Indeed, here is Kasparov criticising the latest attempt to form a coalition, which, of course, doesn’t include him).

Therefore, the Russian political landscape will look much the same for several more election cycles.


MEDVEDEV ADDRESS. He gave his annual address in Tuesday (Russ Eng not available yet). These things are never high rhetoric but are rather a list of points, mostly about domestic concerns. I haven’t read the whole thing yet but Medvedev’s now-customary themes of modernisation, bettering the lives of ordinary people, police reform, the environment and corruption were all present. As far as foreign issues were concerned, we see again the long-time message that Russia is prepared to cooperate but not to be taken advantage of.

OPENING. Two more little signs of things being loosening. Putin announced in Berlin that procedures for foreigners to buy shares in strategic sectors of the economy are to be simplified soon. (How is that going to fit into the Medvedev vs Putin meme? Is there now another, hitherto unnoticed, struggle between Putin I and Putin II? Wouldn’t it be simpler to say that The Team is working on the next stage of the plan?) A Presidential Aide followed this up by stating that visa requirements for high-profile foreign professionals working in Russia will soon be simplified. Obviously something is being prepared.

KHIMKI FOREST. The highway proposal and the future of the forest is an illustration of all that is wrong with Russia today. This piece gives an indication of the interests struggling under the blanket.

PUTIN CNN INTERVIEW. The only thing that struck me as different from what one would expect was the admission that the spy ring in the USA was real. “Let me make it clear once again that we’re dealing here with deep-cover agents, who only become active during crises and when diplomatic ties are severed, when other forms of intelligence become ineffective or impossible.”

QUIETLY, IN THE BACKGROUND. The Atlantic Monthly reveals a story of successful US-Russian cooperation in a tense moment in Libya last year. I’m sure there’s a lot more of this sort of thing going on than we hear about.

QUOTE OF THE DAY. Foreign Minister Lavrov saidWikiLeaks is an amusing read, but in practical politics we are going to be guided by the concrete actions of our partners”.

KATYN. On Friday the Duma passed a resolution that the Katyn massacre was carried out by order of Stalin; the Communists, keeping faith with themselves, still say the Germans did it. I really don’t understand the need for a declaration; after all, the actual document has been out there for a long time. But it pleased Poland and it is the truth. It is also a prelude to Medvedev’s visit to Poland next week.

REPORTERS. A bill imposing harsher punishments for attacks on reporters has been submitted to the Duma.

THE LITTLE COMPANY THAT GREW. It is announced that PepsiCo will pay US$3.8 billion (!) to buy 66% of Wimm-Bill-Dann. I remember its very small start when it chose the name to give the impression that it was from Denmark or some other clean and healthy place.

MORE TROUBLES FOR LUZHKOV? An investigation claims to have turned up numerous examples of violation of construction regulations on the MKAD. I am starting to believe that it is not unimaginable to think that we may see the Luzhkovs on the dock one day.

MOLDOVA. Sunday’s parliamentary elections will continue the deadlock: the Communist Party did best but neither it nor the ruling coalition will have enough seats to elect a president. And, tossing a match into gasoline, Romania’s President said that Moldova could become part of Romania in the next 25 years. Moldova joining Romania was the casus belli of the fighting in the early 1990s. Readers are reminded that Stalin added a slice of the Ukrainian SSR (today’s Transdnestr) to the bits of Romania that he ripped away in 1940. The inhabitants of Transdnestr did not want to be submerged in Romania and the fighting began. There used to be talk of a constitutional amendment allowing Transdnestr to opt out if Moldova were to join Romania but that appears to have fallen by the wayside. Stalin’s legacies just never go away.

GEORGIA. Last week the opposition held a protest against Saakashvili led by Burjanadze’s group; several thousand showed up. No doubt the opposition has been re-activated by Saakashvili’s evident intention to stay in power forever. There were two bomb explosions in Tbilisi on Sunday, one at an opposition party headquarters. As to who did it, take your pick: the government or “forces outside the country”.

KYRGYZ REPUBLIC. Three parties have agreed to form a coalition in parliament. This is to the good.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see