Note February 2016. These were done for the Russia Profile Weekly Experts’ Panel which I cannot find on the Net now. Many were picked up by other sources and I have given links where I can find them.
The problem with suggesting that the Duumvirate create a new party to become a “loyal opposition” to the rather tired United Russia (Единная Россия) is that they have already tried that. Just Russia (Справедливая Россия) was created in 2006; at the time I thought that was exactly what was happening and that two candidates from the Team would be picked (Medvedev for Just Russia and Ivanov for United Russia were my guesses then). If my theory was correct, something happened to spoil the plan: it may have been that Just Russia didn’t do as well as hoped or it may have been that the Team’s deeply embedded fear of instability made it abandon the idea. But Just Russia has never really taken off.
And there’s a good reason why it hasn’t. United Russia is a “pedestal party” – it is the pedestal upon which the Boss stands. No better evidence can be found than its history. When in 1999, it was not clear who the new Boss would be, two “pedestal parties” appeared (Unity and Fatherland-All Russia). A year later they smoothly amalgamated to support Putin. If you wish to be close to power and enjoy the fruits of that closeness, why would you join the lesser “pedestal party”? And so Just Russia did not become a contender.
The second difficulty is the Establishment cannot create an opposition party by fiat; it must arise from some other source. And so we return to the problem of Russian politics. There are only three strong political entities: the pedestal party, the Communists and Zhirinovskiy’s personal vehicle. The last two are steadily slipping: they totalled (there is a degree of vote-sharing) 35% of the popular vote in 1993 but are now down to 20%; their numbers are not likely to grow. The “liberal opposition” (or whatever descriptor you prefer) fails because it will not unite. (I suspect that Western reporters talk too much to these bitter people: bitter because they are both disgusted with the status quo and frustrated by their quarrelsome futility). So, I would conclude that, until the “liberals” get their act together, Russia’s stagnant political situation will endure.
But, just because Plan A didn’t work the first time doesn’t mean it can’t be tried again. If two credible candidates were to run against each other, one backed by “Pedestal party A” and one by “Pedestal party B”, perhaps (perhaps) the foundations of a multi-party system could be laid. But there are two caveats. Putin should not be a candidate because he would probably win, presumably on the United Russia ticket, and we’d be back to where we started. The second problem is kratotropism: even if Candidate B ran a strong second to Candidate A, most power-seekers would immediately switch from B’s pedestal to A’s. Nevertheless Plan A is a possibility to watch.
That having been said, there are two steps that could open the system up a bit. The seven percent threshold in the Duma is too high and should be lowered or abolished altogether. Returning to direct election of regional heads – but only after the heads-for-life are got rid of, which is happening – would also open up the system and create the possibility of some pluralism in the regions.
But ultimately, for there to be a better choice than the pedestal or two failed, stale and shrinking groupings, the liberals have to unite. And, once united, agree that they are players inside the system, not condescending superior beings looking on from outside and sneering. Two big ifs.