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The Right Cause: a suitcase without a handle

Shuvalov-Putin_0.jpg
Optimistic reports of the Kremlin embracing liberal party politics have proven highly exaggerated. Such an agenda lacks the full support of the ruling elites, and as such is doomed to failure, explains Andrei Kolesnikov.

Andrei Kolesnikov
6 April 2011

Last week, a rumour spread around Moscow that First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov – reputed to be a liberal (although this is something of a misnomer since he is simply a rational-minded bureaucrat) – had turned down an offer to head the pro-Kremlin right-liberal party Pravoye delo [“The Right Cause”]. The reason presented was that information about his political future was leaked. More probably, it is because the news made the headlines and was too hotly debated, which is something Prime Minister Vladimir Putin really dislikes. Indeed, the project has not enjoyed full support from the “national leader” at any time since its foundation in 2009, partly because its initial driving force was the architect of the 1990s privatization Anatoly Chubais, whose presence in current Russian politics the Prime Minister finds increasingly difficult to tolerate.

Shuvalov Putin

First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov – a government "liberal" - turned down an offer to head the pro-Kremlin righ-liberal party Pravoye delo . The lack of support from his boss Vladimir Putin seems to have been the main reason.

At the height of the 2007 parliamentary election campaign, Vladimir Putin gave a speech in Luzhniki Stadium emphasising that he saw no need for a liberal party, not even a pro-Kremlin one. For it was the liberals, to quote Putin, “who, while holding key positions in the 1990s, acted to the detriment of state and society, serving the interests of oligarchic structures and squandering the nation’s assets…  Now they want to take revenge, return to power and spheres of influence… If these gentlemen return to power, they can accomplish only one thing: rob millions of people again and line their own pockets, but they’ll go about it with the glamour and cynicism that’s their hallmark.” 

During his latest televised phone-in, Russia’s “national leader” showed he still feels the same way, referring to liberals – not, of course, the loyal ones – who had “raged like a hurricane in the 1990s”. Putin does not like to distinguish between those who “howl in front of foreign embassies like jackals” (2007) and those who, “after raging like a hurricane”, “have retreated to the borders, their hooves thudding” (2010).

At the same time, others within the elite have recognised a need for a party to reflect views and interests of educated, thoughtful and creative Russians: a growing constituency driven to the verge of internal or external exile by a sense of total alienation from what is happening in this country (estimated at 20% of the total population). Naturally, no political party like this could not be free of Kremlin influence or exist without the blessing of the First Deputy Chief of the Presidential Administration, the country’s chief political commander, Vladislav Surkov. The example of the Union of Right Forces (SPS) illustrates the impossibility of even a semi-independent liberal force being allowed.  

At the height of the 2007 parliamentary election campaign, Vladimir Putin gave a speech in Luzhniki Stadium emphasising that he saw no need for a liberal party, not even a pro-Kremlin one.

The leadership structure of Pravoye delo originally comprised of three co-chairmen – Boris Titov, former head of the Delovaya Rossiya business association; Leonid Gozman, a close associate of Anatoly Chubais; and the prominent journalist Georgi Bovt. The structure did not prove very effective or helpful in terms of developing brand awareness, and soon revealed rifts between the “left-wing” Titov and the “right-wing” Gozman. The presence of well-known figures such as Anatoly Chubais or Igor Yurgens, board chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Development, Dmitry Medvedev's “brain centre” didn’t help matters very much either. Nor did the announcement by co-chairmen Gozman and Bovt that the party was supporting Dmitry Medvedev's nomination for a second term in office. Clearly, liberalism does not thrive in captivity: although the pro-Kremlin party's ideological tenets are reminiscent of those of the once-successful SPS, it has failed to attract voters and lacks significant support within the regime.

Last autumn the project was nearly abandoned. It acquired the status of an old “suitcase without a handle”: hard to throw out for sentimental reasons, but also hard to carry. That is when the idea was resurrected of instituting a one-man party leadership and offering the post to a loyal liberal from within the highest ranks of government. One name that kept cropping up in this context was that of Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, a creature of Anatoly Chubais but, at the same time, a man with close links to Putin from the time they both worked for the mayor of St. Petersburg. It was Putin who was reluctant and who, by all accounts, has refused to let go of his chief budget “balancer” Kudrin, whose adept administration of the oil revenues accumulating in the Reserve Fund has helped the country get through the global financial crisis relatively unscathed.

Conformists operate within the system but the system has no need of liberals. At the same time, the system strongly rejects a liberal opposition. The system is torn between a desire for a pro-Kremlin liberal faction and fighting this desire.

It seemed that First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov was acceptable to all as a compromise figure qualified to administer the defibrillation of Pravoye delo. The label of an ideological liberal does not really fit him – in this respect he is certainly no Kudrin. From the government’s perspective, this was a point in his favour. On the other hand, he has been known to make liberal noises from time to time, and in addition, he has oversight of the revision of Strategy 2020, which puts him de facto in charge of the predominantly liberal expert community. (The President of the government's Academy of National Economy, Vladimir Mau and a man close to Shuvalov, is one of the outstanding liberal economists of the Yegor Gaidar school).

The main reservations about Shuvalov concerned the fact that he is not a high-profile figure recognized by voters, and he is a bureaucrat through and through. In 1999, of course, the same was said of Vladimir Putin. Objections to the effect that Putin's first deputy cannot lead a party that defines itself in its programme as being in opposition to the Prime Minister – the former and perhaps future President – were dismissed with the argument that there was no alternative and that this was the only “window” that might provide the liberals with an entry into legitimate power structures, particularly and primarily parliament.

Pravoye delo leaders

The leadership structure of Pravoye delo originally comprised of three co-chairmen – Boris Titov, former head of the Delovaya Rossiya business association; Leonid Gozman, a close associate of Anatoly Chubais; and the prominent journalist Georgi Bovt.

Some insiders in the party apparatus championed Shuvalov as a brilliant organizer, a quality crucial in launching seemingly hopeless projects. Some suggested that it was Dmitri Medvedev who would really benefit from such a party: either because he might take over its leadership at some stage or because a success of Pravoye delo would count as a success of the current President whose support base is made up of young, dynamic, liberal... conformists.

And therein lies the rub. Conformists operate within the system but the system has no need of liberals. At the same time, the system strongly rejects a liberal opposition. The system is torn between a desire for a pro-Kremlin liberal faction and fighting this desire. Liberals, meanwhile, are left without representation in the legal political system.

Peter Geoghegan: dark money and dirty politics

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In conversation:

Peter Geoghegan Dark Money Investigations editor at openDemocracy and the author of ‘Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics’.

Mary Fitzgerald Editor-in-chief, openDemocracy.

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