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Novaya Gazeta, December 18, 2003

The United Russia as a Collective Putin of the Duma

By Pavel Voshchanov

Over the past few days, all the talk in political and observer circles has focused on the defeat of the left wing and the right wing. There isn't much sympathy for the Communist Party (CPRF) - at least they made it into the Duma, even if they lost seats; but as for YABLOKO and the Union of Right-Wing Forces (SPS), it's just like Blinderbor the man-eater said: "See me crying? It's because I'll have to eat you!" The victorious centrists, who (for ideological considerations, of course) cannot move a single step away from the Kremlin, suddenly threw up their hands and cried out in grief: Oh dear, however did we end up with this imbalance?! And they immediately set about planning to rebuild the right-wing liberal movement in Russia.

Needless to say, there is no room in these plans for any of the old right-wingers. No room for Grigori Yavlinsky; the theory goes that if he stays, YABLOKO will never achieve anything, and if he goes, YABLOKO will break up entirely. No room for Anatoly Chubais; he is supposed to keep quiet at Russian United Energy Systems, meekly awaiting dismissal, whereupon Boris Nemtsov and Irina Khakamada will have no recourse but to tour Russia with the repertoire of Kisa Vorobianikov.

Rapid political oblivion is predicted for the old right-wing leaders. Claimants for their places have already come forward. One of them is Vladimir Ryzhkov (to give him his due, he is a capable and promising politician), who has already called for liberal voters to rally behind his standard. If everything goes according to his plans, Russia will once again have a mongrel democratic movement similar to the one that arose in the late 1980s, uniting everyone who had any reason at all for dissatisfaction with the CPSU's monopoly on political power and who was brave enough to make even a few phrases about nomenclatura privileges. The principle of "there ought to be a right wing," now being advocated by the very same regime which has "devoured" the right wing, is bound to lead to a political salad that won't keep for long - made out of anything and everything that can possibly be grown on the field of anti-communism.

To be sure, the picture on the left is very similar. Nobody in the Kremlin or beneath its walls is shedding any tears over the CPRF, of course, but they are still noting with some alarm that
something or other is bound to arise on the ruins of Gennadi Zyuganov's party (if it does fall apart completely). Hence the mid-range objective: the party that arises to fill the gap left by the CPRF should be fully consistent with the letter and spirit of managed democracy. What will it be? If the CPRF, like the right- wing parties, had failed to get into the Duma, the regime's response would have been the same: it would have busied itself with reviving the leftist movement. And the result would have been the same: a political salad made out of anything and everything that can possibly be grown on the field of anti-liberalism.

Naturally, the right-wing parties are attributing their defeat to the cunning use of administrative resources. It's a fair comment, to some extent. It may even be confirmed by some figures.

Shortly before election day, all political parties and blocs had to give the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) details of their campaign spending. These reveal who was sponsored by whom, and how. What is the picture? It transpires that the ruling party (presumably, we may now give United Russia this title) didn't have much more money than the SPS and YABLOKO; even though its advertising campaign was more extensive, and its leaders' tours of the country were more costly.

Of course, the figures submitted to the CEC should not be taken too literally; if only because they never include "undeclared spending," not reported to the CEC, and generally unknown. But there is no doubt that shadow spending did happen, and it did play a role. What's more, if we believe what our colleagues are reporting from the regions (where the authorities tend to act more unceremoniously), the use of administrative resources hasn't been this extensive since the Gorbachev era. No election since the Gorbachev era has witnessed anything like it. Until United Russia, no party got unanimous support from all state officials and bureaucrats. There was never such complete control over the media, especially the electronic media. There was never this kind of interference by the special services, which gave Russia's rich a fright at just the right moment, to ensure maximum loyalty in the provision of campaign donations. This is the apotheosis. And this is probably why United Russia's campaign spending was so low, while its results were so overwhelming: it ended up spending 4.7 million roubles per Duma seat won - nine times less than the SPS, and six-and-a-half times less than YABLOKO. Indeed, it's hard to believe that spending can be so efficient.

The Communists were crushed by the regime's "black PR," of course - Zyuganov simply couldn't respond to it fast enough. Yet this is not the most important point. In these elections, the CPRF gave every impression of having been dragged out of a store-room where it had spent the past ten to 15 years, gathering dust and fraying away. Its images, ideas, and slogans looked old and moth-eaten. Basically, Zyuganov was still talking to the CPRF voters of the early 1990s - but natural attrition has reduced their numbers.

There was another cause for this failure: the Communists lost their monopoly on "uncovering the weeping sores of society." Many people probably noticed that United Russia candidates were arming themselves with the political vocabulary of the Communists. They spoke of ambitious oligarchs who think only of their own pockets. They spoke of those who steal from the state, and how the place for them is behind bars. They spoke of Russia's vast natural resources, which ought to work for the good of society, not for anyone's personal gain. They spoke of the West, which Russia ought to put in its place. So the grandmothers and grandfathers who have followed Zyuganov for so many years were somewhat confused: who is on our side now? And many of them chose to vote for the party which "stood for the president," as everyone was saying.

Then again, the shrinking electorate problem isn't confined to the Communists. For example, what happened to YABLOKO? All this talk of voters being tired of Grigory Yavlinsky is utter nonsense. You could say the same about any federal politician - except the recent arrivals from St. Petersburg, of course. The problem lies elsewhere. The YABLOKO party arose as a product of the democratic fermentation process among the Russian intelligentsia (in the West, they would be called intellectuals). But when Vladimir Putin came to the Kremlin, many members of the intelligentsia - who still remembered the taste of an overlord's hand - once again felt a desire to be close to those in power. YABLOKO's defeat reflected a deep crisis in Russia's intellectual elite; it seems this elite still hasn't figured what its place is in society. Just like in the Soviet era, when intellectuals were faced with the question of whether to serve or to be subservient, they are choosing the latter - and once again the choice comes with the sauce of "needing to do it for the good of all." Once again, there is no shame in doing what was considered shameful in the perestroika years: praising the Leader and persuading the public that no one could possibly be better than him. Unless there are some changes in this area (and we probably shouldn't count on seeing any within the next few years), YABLOKO will continue to lose votes. But that does not mean it is doomed to disappear from politics. Its electoral support base is bound to start growing - but not before all Russian society has had its fill of "strong hand" ideas and lost faith in the policy of replacing the old mercenary oligarchs with some sort of new oligarchs who are alleged to be socially responsible.

The SPS is also experiencing an electoral crisis. This party's leaders, more than the leaders of any other party, spoke about defending Russia's new property owners and their property. But what is the real state of affairs? The SPS wasn't linked to any oligarchs besides Anatoly Chubais and the energy barons close to him. What's more, none of the influential capitalists need any such "political protection." This is because the entire Russian business community, from the very largest companies to the barely visible, is still linked by every nerve and sinew to state officials great and small. They protect business, and they express its political aspirations. No one has ever abolished this rule: "the only people who protect capital are those with a stake in it." If state officials had received instructions from above to join the SPS, the business community and its wallets would also have rallied to Nemtsov and Khakamada. Without that, business simply wasn't interested in them. So the SPS leaders ended up having to appeal to the attitudes of excitable young people, confusing them with nonsense like "each of you is capable of becoming another Chubais." Or, even worse, they started saying that it is possible to turn our absolutely unprofessional armed forces into a professional military. The SPS is a party without an electorate. That is the difference between it and YABLOKO.

There is a lot of talk now about Russia's multi-party system going through some kind of crisis. In fact, this discussion makes no sense. Something that's never really existed cannot experience
a crisis. As far back as the early 1990s, it was clear that Russia's political parties were being formed either in the interests of someone's career or in the interests of someone's wallet. Even the names of many parties were thought up not on the basis of any doctrine or idea, but simply because "Russia doesn't have one of those yet." And what kind of system did all this produce? We have never really had any parties oriented towards the economic and political demands of specific societal groups; and we still don't have them. So we ended up with what was bound to happen sooner or later: a clone of the CPSU. A party created by the ruling nomenclatura to serve its corporate interests, while mouthing pious slogans about the state, the people, and the individual. In the spirit of aiming to double GDP, the Duma elections have successfully doubled VVP (Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin): now we really have two of him. One Putin in the Kremlin, and a collective Putin in the Duma.

Elections always mean political manipulation. But there is also a trend which cannot be controlled by presidents or party functionaries, let alone by political consultants, no matter how skilled. It is always linked to the state of society. If we base our conclusions on that, rather than on any political incidents or palace intrigues, we have to admit that the victors have nothing to celebrate. More likely, it's time to tear your hair - or clutch at your heart.


See also:

State Duma elections 2003


Novaya Gazeta, December 18, 2003

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