How Russia is ruled

About the author
Zygmunt Dzieciolowski is a Polish journalist who has covered Russia and other post Soviet republics for European media since 1989. He is joint editor of openDemocracy/Russia.

In the 1980s, when the communist rulers in Poland still believed the old system could be saved, somebody came up with an idea for how to solve the problem of shortages of food and other goods in Polish stores. At that time most of the consumer sector was administered by the national monopoly company, "Spolem". An official whose name has been rightly forgotten by history suggested splitting Spolem into two different companies who would compete with each other. The principles of communist economy would be saved but perhaps a bit of rivalry between two companies strictly observing the rules set by the ruling Polish United Workers' Party could help to ease market scarcities. To some real reformists, this seemed from the beginning like a caricature of the market economy.

When I watch present-day Russian political life it seems to me that policymakers in the Kremlin must have learned the forgotten Polish idea and are now trying to implement it in their own country, albeit in the political arena and on a much larger scale.

For most of the period of Vladimir Putin's presidency, his key ally has been the Yedinaya Rossiya (United [or Unified] Russia) party, which has played a dominant role in the duma (state parliament). With a majority of votes, it has been able to pass any law proposed by the Kremlin. Governors in most of the eighty-six Russian regions are also loyal members of United Russia; so are numerous city-council members and mayors. The results of the regional elections of 11 March 2007 seem to confirm that, more and more, Putin's Russia is following the model of a country ruled by a single party.

A competition from above

Yet for pragmatic reasons, the Kremlin now wants to diversify. It is no longer satisfied with a single-party model. It wants an (at least) two-party system - provided that the second party is as loyal and reliable as the first. This excludes the possibility of the Kremlin supporting any of the existing parties, or giving them a greater role in Russian political affairs. The Communist Party of Gennady Zyuganov, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, have quietly consented to their own marginalisation - thus ensuring that they still have a chance to remain a part of Russian political folklore, if not of its active political life.

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski is a Polish journalist and writer who has reported on Russia for leading German, Swiss and Polish newspapers since 1989. He is the author of Planet Russia, published in Poland in 2005.

Also by Zygmunt Dzieciolowski on openDemocracy:

"Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s shadow"
(3 April 2006)

"Russia: racism on the rise"
(26 April 2006)

"Russia's corruption dance"
(15 June 2006)

"Kinoeye: Russia’s reviving film industry"
(11 July 2006)

"Russia and the middle east: post-Soviet flux"
(14 August 2006)

"Roman Abramovich’s Chukotka project"
(14 September 2006)

"In Russia, death solves all problems"
(3 November 2006)

"Alexander Litvinenko: the poison of power"
(20 November 2006)

"The Russian politics of vodka"
(7 December 2006)

The Yabloko party of Grigory Yavlinsky (formally the Russian Democratic Party Yabloko) represents a far greater challenge to Kremlin policy and ideology than these fringe movements, but it will face more and more difficulties trying to play some role in the official political arena. An even tougher predicament confronts radical anti-Kremlin figures such as former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, and National-Bolshevik Party leader and writer Eduard Limonov.

The Kremlin's new invention, announced in October 2006, is the Spravedlivaya Rossiya - Rodina/Pensionery/Zhizn (Fair Russia - Motherland/Pensioners/Life) party. It was organised hastily by Kremlin strategists, just before the country entered its long election season culminating in March 2008 when Russians will elect Vladimir Putin's successor.

The regional elections on 11 March were the first test of the Kremlin's new political set-up. The most important part of the elections - which encompassed almost sixty regions and more than 30 million voters - took place in fourteen of these regions. Among them were St Petersburg, Samara and Stavropol, which elected their regional legislative assemblies. For weeks during the election campaign, United Russia and Fair Russia leaders travelled around the country promising citizens to increase pensions, fix the crisis in the healthcare sector, develop housing and cope with the demographic crisis. Fair Russia especially, in order to appeal to supporters of the opposition parties and groups, appropriated the latter's language and slogans to criticise the government for allegedly ignoring the legitimate needs and problems of Russian citizens.

At the same time, two leading figures - Boris Gryzlov (speaker of the Russian parliament's lower house and leader of United Russia) and Sergei Mironov (speaker of the senate and the leader of Fair Russia) tried to win voters' hearts by outbidding their "rival" with confessions of love and loyalty to the Kremlin in general and Vladimir Putin in particular (Sergei Mironov showed his talent in this respect when he was a candidate in the 2004 presidential election; even when campaigning in his own name he repeatedly said that he saw no better candidate for president than Vladimir Putin).

Yet the Kremlin was taking no chances. It had implemented new election rules which ensured that the victory of its favourite parties would not depend only on their campaigning. It made changes in the electoral law to prevent voters from any longer being able to vote "against all" the candidates, to end the minimum voter turnout required to validate the election, and (in a number of regions) to raise the qualifying threshold for parties to win seats from 5% to 7%.

Yabloko and the liberal Union of Right Forces managed to register for only four and eight of the regional elections respectively. The major scandal took place in Russia's second city, St Petersburg, where Yabloko - enjoying wide support of up to 20% of the city's electorate - was removed from the ballot under the pretext that the lists containing voters' names necessary to register for the election included too many forged signatures. Reports from different regions said dirty methods and tricks - mostly used against opponents of the ruling United Russia party - were extensively employed during the election campaign.

A distant rumbling

The Kremlin's manipulations were not unsuccessful. In a turnout of 39.1%, United Russia cemented its grip on power by winning 60.5% of the seats up for election. It won the regional elections in all regions except one, the southern Russian province of Stavropol (Mikhail Gorbachev's home territory) where Fair Russia enjoyed the strongest support. The Communist Party achieved a respectable 12.5%, with Fair Russia close behind on 11.7%. United Russia proclaimed its achievement as evidence that voters associated it with the political stability and economic growth they have enjoyed under Putin.

At first glance nothing has changed. Putin's Kremlin retained its popularity; loyal parties and politicians were rewarded with voters' confidence. The outcome suggests that the parliamentary election in December 2007 will be little different, auguring an easy win for Putin's anointed successor in the presidential election of March 2008.

But, in a Russia characterised by secretive backstage political intrigues and a silent public opinion which can change its mind overnight, things are not so simple. An unexpectedly crowded pre-election "march of dissenters" in St Petersburg - when thousands of demonstrators clashed with police - signalled the first signs of frustration felt by the Russian public. The number of people upset that important decisions concerning their lives are being taken without observing democratising principles is increasing. They want more transparency, argues St Petersburg sociologist Maria Matskevich.

Now, the three more radical opposition leaders - Garry Kasparov, Eduard Limonov and Mikhail Kasyanov - say they will attempt to organise another demonstration (a "march of those who disagree"), this time in the capital, Moscow. They promise to do their best to bring as many people onto the streets as possible. If they succeed, it may signal that the triumphal mood of the Kremlin after these regional elections is a façade behind which more serious political calculations are underway.

Dmitri Travin is the editor of the St Petersburg weekly Delo. His criticism of the present Russian administration is always based on careful political, sociological and economic analysis. In a recent article he articulated concern over the country's political future by asking three important questions:

  • what will happen if the electoral campaigning stimulates people's expectations to a level higher than the real possibilities of the economy?
  • what will happen if Putin's successor lacks the current president's charisma and fails to secure equally high popularity ratings?
  • what will be the consequences when the perpetual infighting among different groups inside the government, and their dirty character, become apparent to (so far) politically neutral or quiescent citizens?

It is the Kremlin's real achievement, Travin comments with characteristic irony, to provoke people to march in the streets in St Petersburg even at a time when the country is flooded with petrodollars. What will happen when the bubble bursts?

The three questions posed by Dmitri Travin will not go away. The right answers will be a key to Russia's political future in the last year of Vladimir Putin's presidency, and beyond.