Putin’s Popular Front

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.


JRL/2011/ 91/16

Believing that Ockham’s Razor is the most powerful analytical principle ever articulated, I would try first to understand Putin’s popular front idea by assessing the reasons he gave before trying to fit it into more elaborate schema.

Putin’s two reasons were: “First, the State Duma elections will be held soon… And it is very important how the parliament will be formed. Second. Frankly speaking, United Russia, our leading political force, needs an influx of new ideas, proposals and people in these circumstances”. (Note “and people”)

The first reason ties into his speech in April: “If United Russia wants to be competitive in the political struggle with other public organisations and political parties it should create a competitive atmosphere within its own ranks” and “The six hundred candidates listed on the ballots should be up for review and discussion with all voters in the regions and municipalities, not just their respective party members”. The popular front speech is a follow-on to that speech.

The second reason – related to the first – is his concern that United Russia is stagnating. “New ideas” has been a concern of his for some time; for example, in 2008 he stated that “The goal of our party is to generate new ideas and projects and control their implementation. We need to understand public opinion and people’s needs.” He has evidently decided that United Russia, from its own resources, has not met that goal.

And it’s not surprising that United Russia is no wellspring of creativity: its membership is drawn from those who want to be close to power and profit from that closeness. They wait to be told what “new ideas” they should support; it is not in the nature of power-seekers to propose new ideas: what if the Boss doesn’t like them? But, for better or for worse, it is Russia’s “leading political force” and the Team must work with it. Therefore, Ockham’s Razor would suggest that the popular front is Putin’s latest attempt to bring a level of creativity into United Russia.

Russia’s politics are stagnating: United Russia is what it is; no “new ideas” will come from either the Communists or Zhirinovskiy; Just Russia is a fading earlier attempt by the Centre to force creative tension; the liberals refuse to unite. This political reality will endure for some time.

It does not seem very likely that Putin’s popular front will attract much creativity: now that the Boss has given them a new box to check, they will simulate creativity. Bureaucracies the world over are skilled at adjusting their behaviour to pretend to give the Boss what he wants.

Ultimately the “influx of new ideas” must come from the bottom and that brings us to the infant state of Russia’s civil society. Both Medvedev and Putin have spoken of this lack: Putin in his 2000 Federal Assembly Address: “Many of our failures are rooted in the fact that civil society is underdeveloped” and, eleven years later, Medvedev: “I think that bigger involvement on the part of civil society in discussing sensitive issues will do our country good. We have deeply rooted totalitarian traditions, and it will take time”.

It will indeed take time, and a healthy civil society will not appear by fiat from the top. Until it appears and strengthens Russia is stuck with its present political landscape.