Does Putin need his parliament?


Russia's ruling party, ‘United Russia’, is significantly weaker than previously. Does Putin still need ‘his’ party or is it now more of a millstone round his neck? 

Dmitri Travin
19 March 2013

There is an increasingly persistent rumour in Russia that the State Duma, the lower chamber of parliament, might be dissolved. This may seem strange because the election was only just over a year ago and, moreover, the results were extremely positive for Putin’s party ‘United Russia.’  Perhaps the current parliament doesn’t suit Putin for some reason?  Does he perhaps want to get rid of it so that a new election could still further strengthen his position in parliament?  To find the answer to these questions, we have to look more closely at ‘United Russia’ itself.

 A nomenklatura, not a party

It is unlike parties in democratic countries, where candidates win over voters by persuading them of the advantages of their chosen course of action. Russian voters have almost no concept of what ‘United Russia’ ideology might be, what changes the party is intending to make to legislation or the difference between its chosen course and that of other political parties. Its success stems simply from the fact that it is considered the party of Vladimir Putin. The Russian president is currently not the formal leader of the party because this role passed to the prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, but the ordinary voter pays little attention to such niceties.

Putin is still truly popular in Russia. Experts agree that last year’s presidential election was to a large extent rigged, but the fact that Putin actually won is not usually questioned. Even the most sceptical experts consider that he would anyway have won the election, though it would probably have gone to a second round. So the party whose ‘engine’ is Putin is effectively guaranteed success in today’s Russia.  ‘United Russia’ party members are not given to admitting that without him they would be completely helpless, but independent experts consider that without Putin the party would be in total crisis mode, unable to dominate the State Duma.


Putin at 'United Russia' party congress 26 May 2012. Photo (cc) www.kremlin.ru

If we use the terminology which was current in the USSR (and still is in today’s Russia), then ‘United Russia’ is not a Western-style political party, but a Soviet-style party nomenklatura. In the USSR, the nomenklatura comprised a large number of people involved in the management of the party, the government and the economy (they were sometimes called apparatchiks and this term was an accepted part of the language of Sovietology). They were well paid and had access to special closed shops selling goods which were in short supply (or non-existent) for ordinary citizens.

The break-up of the USSR at the end of the 80s and beginning of the 90s revealed that the nomenklatura was completely helpless in a situation of ideological crisis. It was unable to convince the nation that the preservation of the Soviet system was essential; indeed, it didn’t even try. The nomenklatura used its privileges to privatise part of the state enterprises and to make big money in so doing, rather than to save the USSR.

In other words, the nomenklatura lived well in Soviet times under a totalitarian system, and exploited the crisis to make sure it was well set up in the new, market-economy Russia.

‘United Russia’ is doing exactly the same. Party officials are installed in posts in the State Duma, in the regional legislative assemblies, in the executive and the judiciary.  They can’t (and won’t) do anything to support the continuing existence of the current regime. There is virtually no doubt that, were the regime to collapse, these people wouldn’t lift a finger to preserve it: they would prefer to go into business (or even to go and live in the West) with the capital they are busy accumulating through corrupt practices.

If not the Kremlin…then Miami

Many people in Russia are quite clear about the true intentions of ‘United Russia’ party officials, which is why there was such a row when it was discovered that several high-ranking party members owned expensive flats abroad (mainly in Miami). The very fact of owning property abroad is of itself, of course, not a crime, but the property of the party officials incensed the opposition-minded intellectuals for two reasons. Firstly, many correctly assume that such very expensive purchases could only have been made with money which had been corruptly acquired. Secondly, that the aforementioned expensive property was not just outside Moscow but abroad (a huge distance away from Russia) gives a very strong signal that the owners are already making preparations against the fall of the regime and moving abroad.


'United Russia', party of thievery and crookery.  (cc) www.navalny.livejournal.com

It is in this context that the future of ‘United Russia’ should be considered. It is only natural to wonder what use Putin could possibly have for a party, which costs a vast amount of money to keep on the road, but which will not lift a finger to strengthen the regime in a crisis situation.

Putin today should be gradually readying himself for a significant fall in his popularity rating.  Economic growth is slowing down and oil prices, the sine qua non of Russia’s prosperity, remain at a considerably lower level than in the middle of 2008. The Kremlin will not be able to maintain the growth of real incomes at the rates Russians have come to expect, so disillusionment with Putin’s regime and with him personally can only increase. In such a situation the President will find it hard to carry on being the ‘engine’ pulling ‘United Russia’ behind him – all the more so because information about corruption among the representatives of his party spreads quickly throughout Russia.

Reform of the electoral system

Putin needs a different party. Or, at the very least, a different way of electing the State Duma. He needs parliamentarians who are able to fight for their own seats in the Duma, rather than just exploiting his name to ensure their victory. This is what is behind the current reform of the Russian electoral system. The next parliamentary election will be run on a mixed system: first past the post and proportional representation. Part of the deputies will be elected from party lists (as they are today) and another part will be made up of individual candidates who have won in single-mandate constituencies.  This system will require the candidates to work out their own ways of approaching the electorate and to use their own personal authority to win, rather than coasting in to the Duma on Putin’s coat tails.

The transition to this mixed system will very considerably affect Putin’s relationship with the deputies in the Duma. The current party lists for ‘United Russia’ consist solely of candidates who are absolutely subservient to the Kremlin. They can be completely useless in the political battle, unable to communicate with voters and without any authority, but they are elected for their 100% loyalty. Under the new system, a significant proportion of the parliamentarians could be elected to the Duma independently of Putin or the Kremlin.


'United Russia', party of thieves and crooks! (cc) www.navalny.livejournal.com

The Kremlin will of course do everything it can to ensure that people who are openly hostile to the regime will not be elected: the likes of Garry Kasparov, Aleksey Navalny, Boris Nemtsov, Mikhail Kasyanov, Vladimir Ryzhkov, Sergei Udaltsov and others, for instance. But there will be a significant number of independent candidates who have nothing to do with ‘United Russia.’

The Kremlin and the independents will then negotiate terms for cooperation. Deputies will lobby for the interests of their own businesses or the companies that funded their election campaign. The Kremlin will make compromise agreements with them whereby, in return for the deputies’ political loyalty, Putin will take account of their interests.

In this system the role of ‘United Russia’ will in all probability be considerably reduced, as party membership will no longer be essential to be elected and receive Kremlin support.  But it does not follow from this that Putin will want to dissolve the Duma before the next election, due in December 2016.  In other words, the very real weakening of ‘United Russia’ which we see today doesn’t mean that Putin will cease using the current Duma, which is after all reasonably efficient at addressing the issues he puts before it.

There is another important argument to be considered here: changing the electoral system in Russia does not mean democratisation. Putin is reforming the system in accordance with the changed circumstances, transforming it into a suitable tool for dealing with situations of mass protest and the slide in his popularity rating.  True democracy in Russia would require first and foremost the de-monopolisation of television: today the TV channels which broadcast throughout Russia are strictly controlled by the Kremlin, so the opposition can only muster any support in that narrow section of the electorate which gets its information from the internet. This situation will not change. Putin will not permit any kind of propaganda against him to be broadcast on TV. So the likelihood of the current regime being transformed into a more democratic regime remains extremely small.

(top) Putin as Prime Minister addressing Duma, 11 April 2012.  Photo: RIA NOVOSTI/Grigory Sysoev

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