The “All Russian National Front”, initiated by by Vladimir Putin, is a sign of two things: on the one hand, a symptom of the problems besetting the regime, and on the other hand confirmation that it’s old methods that will be used to address these problems. It’s an ugly initiative.
The problems lie in the fact that the Prime Minister’s personal popularity, and, accordingly, the popularity of the United Russia party, which basks in his reflected glory, are clearly slipping. This is as clear as daylight in both opinion polling and official electoral data.
The reasons for the slide are understandable. Firstly, we have “social stagflation.” Rising oil prices may distort official statistics into showing a growing economy, but what the man on the street sees is rising prices for petrol, utilities or food staples like, for example, buckwheat (in spite of Putin’s promise not to allow this to happen). Against this, they have no chance of a pay rise or additional income. This sense of stagnation, at a time when oil prices are concurrently rising, is somewhat new in the history of Putin’s Russia.
“The problems lie in the fact that the Prime Minister’s personal popularity, and, accordingly, the popularity of the United Russia party, which basks in his reflected glory, are clearly slipping. This is as clear as daylight in both opinion polling and official electoral data.”
Secondly, we have rampant corruption. Thirdly, there’s not much evidence of Russia “getting up off its knees” in its international relations. And, finally, fourthly, psychological fatigue: people are simply fed up.
All this meant that United Russia did significantly worse than expected in the March elections in 12 regions of the Russian Federation. By comparison with the last cycle for the same regions, Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia increased its headline share of the vote by 184%; the Communist Party (V. Zyuganov) by 173%; Sergei Mironov’s Just Russia party by 121%, and United Russia by only 119%. If you take into account factors such as the non-participation of strong rivals (in particular the popular Agrarian Party, which was swallowed up by United Russia) and the elimination of the “none of the above” box, United Russia’s share of the vote actually fell by 15% by comparison with the 2007 General Election.
Even more unfortunate for the party of power is the structure of its electoral support, which is reflected in the official results. Voting took place in 12 regions, but a quarter of the votes for United Russia came from one region, the republic of Dagestan. This region has long been known for its “managed voting”: in the absence of a free press and proper control over the counting of votes, results here are always impossibly uniform and exactly in line with the wishes of the authorities. In March, turnout was a phenomenally high 85%, with United Russia garnering some 66% of the votes.
In the more urbanised regions of Central Russia, where information is less opaque, the situation for United Russia was perceptibly worse: Kaliningrad 41%, Kirov 37%, Kursk 45%, Nizhny Novgorod 43%, Orenburg 42% and Tver 40%. The turnout was low, so the volume of support was modest and a long way from United Russia’s claims that it has a constitutional majority of 66%. By the way, any shortfall in the party list vote was compensated by elections in single member constituencies, where all the local notables had long been made members of United Russia.
The worst thing was something else. As in Dagestan, far away from the centre, where counting took place with no proper monitoring (and yielded exactly 66%), support for United Russia in the Russian regions came mainly from the out-of-the way provinces. In the cities, where an active social environment makes out and out falsification difficult, the results were considerably worse.
Irrespective of how United Russia achieves its results (obviously with the help of manipulation in the provinces which are not sufficiently transparent), United Russia is one way or another becoming a party whose support is concentrated deep in the provinces. The party of the backwoods.
In the Kirov region the overall United Russia result was 37%, whereas in the regional capital Vyatka (formerly Kirov) it was only 26%. In the Tver region the overall result was 40%, but in the city of Tver it was only 28%. Similarly, a more detailed analysis of the figures in the Tver region shows that in the country (the Vyshnevolotsk district) United Russia got 52% of the votes, whereas in the regional centre Vyshnii Volotsk it was only 27%. In the rural Rzhevsk district it was 69%, but in the town of Rzhev 27%. In the rural Torzhok district 56%, but the town of Torzhok itself 29%. As 75% of Russia’s population lives in the cities, pulling in the right result for United Russia by manipulating rural figures is becoming increasingly difficult.
Hymn to the "National Front"
Bankers join the National Front,
Accompanied by thieves and killers;
Liars, bandits, prostitutes,
Businessmen of doubtful repute;
Art historians and journalists,
Spin doctors and neo-fascists;
Singers, actors, leading sportsmen,
Well-heeled oligarchs and glamour showmen....
My enemies’ friends, the political elites
All the losers, the ragged, the cheats,
Settled there, a universal horde
.... Yet real people aren't about to jump on board
Yury Heifetz (from Vladimir Varofolomeev's blog)
Irrespective of how United Russia achieves its results (obviously with the help of manipulation in the provinces which are not sufficiently transparent), United Russia is one way or another becoming a party whose support is concentrated deep in the provinces. The party of the backwoods. Towns and cities are obviously becoming increasingly disillusioned with it and this is a sign of its imminent demise, because, quite apart from the fact that demographic factors limit the results which can be achieved by falsifying rural figures, the towns and cities are always a forerunner of what is to come. What is recognised by city populations today will be understood by the whole country tomorrow.
While the leadership of the party maintains its triumphant expression, it already sees that things are in a bad way. It understands there needs to be a complete overhaul, and has already begun to move on two fronts.
First, it realises the necessity of removing any rival contenders for regional lobbying resources, because these resources determine who will stand to gain from falsifications in the provinces. To this end Sergei Mironov, head of the Federation Council, leader of the Just Russia party and a Putin crony from the outset, has left the field. With this sacrifice the Prime Minister, is sending a clear signal to the regional elites: all efforts to be focused on United Russia and no deviating.
Secondly, it has created the “Russian National Front”. This is a signal to the wider electorate, rather than just the elites. Professional organisations, women’s organisations and NGOs…. At first sight, it’s a many-sided movement united in the struggle – but for what? And against whom? Not important. What matters is that this very many-sided movement has only one electoral face, and that is called United Russia.
The National Front’s job is to fulfil the function of a lifebelt put on the power vertical and it will probably manage to do this for the 2010-11 electoral cycle. It’s afterwards that the problems will start, and fairly soon at that. Without even more massive falsifications, the regional elites (with or without the National Front) will not be able to provide Putin’s party with the result it wants. The cities and the internet will react badly and the legitimacy of the victory will increasingly be called into question. In the very near future Russia is also going to be hit by inflation, which coupled with the annual shrinkage of the labour market by 1 million people, the parallel growth of the number of pensioners, the outflow of investments and, sooner or later, a fall in oil prices, will mean that Putin’s leadership — whether with United Russia or the National Front — will provoke ever more questions and even less enthusiasm.
“While the leadership of the party maintains its triumphant expression, it already sees that things are in a bad way. It understands there needs to be a complete overhaul...”
Given the lack of honest elections for the lawful transfer of power to other contenders, how the “collective” Putin will behave as he loses his popularity is a very serious, and separate, question. In this situation it’s likely that the National Front will eventually have to declare who its opponents are, who will then be given the tag of “enemies of the people”. The post-Soviet countries can’t help but return to times gone by – you have only to look at Belarus, Transnistria, Uzbekistan, Tadjikistan and Turkmenistan to see this.
It’s logical enough: if there’s a Vertical, then sooner or later there’ll inevitably be a Front. When there’s a Front, there’ll be an Enemy. If there’s an Enemy, then that’s something to occupy the man in the street, rather than the price of his buckwheat or petrol.