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.