As United Russia Takes On Water, Russia’s Elite Jump Ship

September 6, 2013
Workers post a United Russia campaign banner for the State Duma elections in Moscow. | RFE/RL

While most eyes have been on the Moscow mayoral race as the September 8 election, a greater drama is playing out in Russia’s regional elections. Across the country, from Zabaikalsky Krai to Arkhangelsk, the fate of United Russia is being decided. After nearly two decades as the prevailing power of a dominant party system, United Russia took a major hit when it won just 53% of Duma seats in the 2011 election, with the help of fraud that sparked the renaissance of the Russian opposition. Now, its ability to win elections is being tested again in an increasingly chaotic electoral environment. If United Russia fails to deliver victories in regional elections, it could spell the end for the party—and for the Russian party politics as we know it.

In several races, United Russia is on unstable footing. In some regions holding party list Duma elections, a United Russia victory is in doubt because a member of another party presently leads the government: in the Zabaikalsky region, the governor represents Just Russia, and in Smolensk, he is a member of LDPR. In Vladimir, the United Russia governor is so unpopular that the Communist candidate looks likely to win, with the possibility of carrying the Duma as well. In Yekaterinburg, Yevgeny Roizman of Civil Platform may win the mayor’s race.

These changes are alarming for United Russia because they undercut its very purpose. United Russia serves the Kremlin as a coordination mechanism for control of the elite. United Russia provides elites with proximity to power—and all that it entails, including opportunity for personal enrichment—in exchange for their party loyalty. Party loyalty as all but absent from Russian politics before the advent of United Russia in 2003, and a proliferation of parties had led to a messy pluralism that weakened the Yeltsin government. Once elites saw United Russia as the new source of power, they flocked to it, eager to vote the way the Kremlin wanted and support the policies the Kremlin wanted for the opportunity to climb the ladder of power. That level of elite coordination takes a lot of the work out of running a democratic government.

In the same way, United Russia ensures political unity across Russia’s vast territory by encouraging regional elites to follow the Kremlin agenda when it counts, and giving them relative freedom in other regards. The party emerged when the succession crises of the 1990s had barely been put to rest. It was essential to hold the Federation together, and for that, the Kremlin needed to control the regions and prevent the emergence of a competing political power. United Russia, which rapidly metastasized across the country, was meant to deliver election victories and help eliminate the opposition, with the bigger objective of preserving the territorial integrity and stability of the country. Although the Balkanization of Russia is no longer a threat, United Russia still works to guarantee that the regions remain in step behind the Kremlin. What this election will decide is how many of regions United Russia can lose before it is no longer serving its purpose.

These goals are not secondary to United Russia’s activities as a political party. Rather, the converse is true: United Russia is more a mechanism for elite coordination than it is a political party. Still, like a political party, it must still have some popular appeal, and that appeal has been waning. The humiliating result of the Duma elections and egregious fraud indicated that the party no longer enjoys much popular support. Thanks to the new opposition movement, the party has become increasingly associated with criminality and abuse of power. As of August 2013, its approval rating was just 39%, not even a majority, despite United Russia’s status as party of power. Its reputation in Moscow is so bad that Sergei Sobyanin chose to collect signatures to run as an independent, rather than have United Russia next to his name on the ballot.

Yet United Russia could survive declining popularity as long as it still has the support of the only man who matters—Vladimir Putin. Although he resigned his party membership when he resumed the presidency, Putin is the central figure of United Russia, doling out rewards and protections (real and promised) to incentivize the cooperation of regional elites. This is a principal-agent relationship, and without Putin, it falls apart.

But lately Putin’s interest is fading. After the 2011 Duma election, it was immediately apparent that a major reinvention would be required to keep the party afloat, yet little has been done to resuscitate it. Instead, resources have been pouring into the All-Russia People’s Front (ONF), which seems designed to undercut United Russia and does have Putin’s support. Sensing a potential new locus of power, some members of United Russia and the other parliamentary parties have eagerly joined ONF. Still, the level of uncertainty around ONF is high, given that it is not a political party and there are no public plans at this time for it to become one. Ironically, so many United Russia members have joined that ONF is sometimes seen as insufficiently distinct, and unlikely to be a success. The ONF confusion has created a power vacuum, leaving elites scrambling for new strategies.

Regional elites can crack down, redoubling efforts to deliver the election using conventional tactics, like in Yaroslavl where the popular Civil Platform party was removed from the legislative assembly ballot, following the city’s Civil Platform mayor’s arrest for corruption. Afterward, Civil Platform’s leader Mikhail Prokhorov refused to meet with his party’s Yaroslavl contingent, which some say indicates that he had been told not allow Civil Platform to divide the elite. The crackdown strategy has also been popular even in regions where there is much less competition from the opposition. By playing hardball, elites can demonstrate their loyalty and effectiveness, but they risk further tarnishing the Party’s image with ham-handed fraud. There is also a reputational risk associated with following out of date, repressive strategies, when there are indications that the Kremlin is taking a somewhat softer (yet equally effective) approach toward elections.

Politics in post-Chistiye Prudy Russia demand an element of finesse to create the illusion of a liberalizing democracy. Elites could thus follow the Moscow model of relative openness, allowing candidates to run where they may have been excluded in the past, like in Ekaterinburg, where Roizman is campaigning for the mayor’s office (Roizman has also been subject to harassment). These elections require more delicate manipulations, like encouraging a low voter turnout, but if successful, they offer elites an opportunity to create an illusion of popularity by winning a contested election (see, for example, the Moscow mayoral race). Yet this is also a dangerous course, given that United Russia brand has been so damaged and that regional elites typically lack the expertise of Moscow’s political technologists.

The last course of action for a regional elite in the twilight of United Russia is to jump ship completely. Having detected that the party has lost its popular appeal and no longer lies in the good graces of its most powerful patron, a smart elite knows that the death of United Russia has already occurred. Thus some elites are casting off United Russia and heading for opposition parties. In Ulyanovsk, the deputy Duma speaker left United Russia for Civil Platform. The speaker of the Ivanov Duma made the same decision, and so many United Russia members there joined Rodina that they now lead the Rodina party list. Also in Ivanov, a once-prominent United Russia member, General Aleksander Akhlyustin now heads the party list for Patriots of Russia. Arkhangelsk has lost a significant number of United Russia members too.

But this does not mean a positive shift is in the works for Russian politics, with more openness, more experienced politicians in opposition parties, more local politicians who are more aware of their constituents’ needs. Rather, it means that the fairly stable dominant party system that Russia has had thus far under Putin is about to unravel. Russian politics is likely heading for a state of high party fragmentation, where too many political parties exist for parties to effectively coordinate elites and for elections to aggregate voters’ preferences.

Just as United Russia was losing its grip, the Kremlin tepidly accommodated to the protest movement by relaxing party registration laws. In the last year, the number of officially registered parties has proliferated. At present, 86 parties that formed after the changes to the law are being considered for registration by the Department of Justice, with 72 already registered. This kind of excessive pluralism is not necessarily beneficial for democracy. Many of these parties are nothing more than white noise and actually discourage the public from engaging with politics. In this election, voters in some regions will choose from a list of 20 or more parties, many of which he or she has never heard of. That voter might just decide not to vote at all, or might vote for whatever party is at the top of the list—United Russia, more often than not.

Parties that do have established reputations have been diluted by elite-hopping, where politicians switch parties strategically—or for a financial inducement—without actually altering their views and policies. Recently, in some of the regions mentioned above, members of Just Russia have moved to Rodina or to Civil Platform. When the same faces appear in different parties, it is difficult for parties to stay credible. Meanwhile, parties once considered oppositional have discredited themselves by supporting the Kremlin’s agenda. For example, GennadyGudkov of Just Russia lost many of his supporters when he turned to United Russia deputies to get through the municipal filter for the Moscow Duma election. While parliamentary opposition parties LDPR and Just Russia were once worth voting for in the interest of choosing any party but United Russia, their support for recent controversial legislation like the foreign adoption ban has grievously damaged their reputations.

If we do see increasing party fragmentation, it would not be a first for Russia. The hyper fragmentation of the 1990s is what led to the creation of United Russia in the first place. United Russia was merely one extreme on the swing of a pendulum, from the dominance of a single party to chaotic pluralism, as Vladimir Gel’man has suggested. Along with that shift will likely come further state dysfunction, as high party fragmentation is not conducive to enduring and effective inter-party cooperation, as everyone’s allegiances and positions are up for sale or negotiation and liable to change on a whim. Similarly, elite coordination will be challenging, as top-down decision-making is much harder. The same coordination problems make it unlikely that Putin will be unseated in an election. It’s possible that those at the top have decided that they will feel just as secure if chaotic competition prevails in politics, as they did with the help of United Russia.

In United Russia’s heyday, goals were clear. The hierarchy was clear. Power was clear. Now, the party’s decline has brought a new element of desperation to Russian politics. Without United Russia, or a replacement, the lives of regional elites are about to become much more uncertain.