On June 11-12, the All-Russia People’s Front (Общероссийский народный фронт, known by its Russian acronym ONF) will hold its founding congress in Moscow. The movement was established in 2011 by Putin and appeared to be designed to shore up support for United Russia in the 2011-2012 electoral cycle. Revived in March 2013, its current goal is to bring together like-minded organizations and citizens to work towards the modernization and economic development of Russia, as consistent with Putin’s reelection promises. Putin is expected to attend the congress.
For the time being, ONF is an umbrella organization. Membership includes political parties, such as A Just Russia, Patriots of Russia, Rodina and United Russia, as well as powerful labor interest, like the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs and the troubled Russian Postal Service. Around 2,000 organizations are members, representing all 83 of Russia’s regions.
A major revision of ONF’s charter will occur at the congress, and it has been speculated that plans for ONF’s transition to a formal political party from a public organization will be announced–Vladimir Gutenev, a United Russia Duma deputy and member of ONF, recently said that he plans to propose formalizing the movement’s status as a party at the congress.
The groundwork for this transition has already been laid. For example, a recent change in membership policy now prohibits the wholesale membership of organizations, and instead permits only individual membership after signing a charter. This procedure, as Valery Khomiakov, the general director of the National Strategy Council, told Izvestia, is more typical of a political party. Its regional reach also primes it for registration as a political party.
ONF’s relationship with United Russia might best be described as entanglement. When the five members of its leadership committee are announced at the congress, they are expected to include Sergei Neverov, General Council Secretary of United Russia and State Duma Deputy Speaker, and his deputy Olga Batalina. Neverov and Batalina are two of the most prominent members of United Russia, but analyst Stanislav Belkovsky has speculated that they will be awarded this role due to their proximity to Deputy Prime Minister Vlyacheslav Volodin. A large number of United Russia Duma deputies are already members of ONF, as ONF members were permitted to run as UR candidates in the last Duma election.
One of the movement’s present goals seems to be to shore up United Russia’s popularity, particularly in the regions. In the recent gubernatorial election in Chukotka and in the upcoming mayoral election in Voronezh, all candidates including the incumbent are ONF members. Dmitri Abzalov of the Center of Political Conjuncture predicts that ONF’s regional braches will not significantly overlap with United Russia membership, so the organization can provide reliable outside information to the dominant party. At the same time, journalist Oleg Kashin believes that ONF is designed to fully supplant United Russia, which will shortly be dissolved.
If ONF becomes a political party, will it be just another Kremlin satellite party or is it the new United Russia? Both options might be risky for the Kremlin.
ONF is not a good candidate for a satellite party. In a dominant party system, a satellite party serves the dominant ruling party by appealing to a portion of the electorate with specific interests that are not addressed by the dominant party’s generally broad ideology (Right Cause, which appeals to businessmen, is an example). ONF is not sufficiently differentiated from United Russia to serve as an effective satellite party. Not only do they share leadership, the two movements have similar brand identities, both promoting traditionalism and nationalism, though ONF lacks the criminal stigma of United Russia. ONF appears poised to appeal to United Russia’s base. Dividing the electorate is not advantageous to United Russia, whose very name speaks to its interest in the support of the largest possible share of voters. It would thus seem that ONF is better suited to remaining a public organization or displacing United Russia as dominant party.
In becoming a dominant party, however, ONF would face considerable barriers that its predecessor never encountered. United Russia was formed through a merger of the Unity and Fatherland-All Russia parties in 2001, at a time when dozens of small parties occupied the political sphere. United Russia has since become so monolithic that nearly every significant elite is linked to it, and it is in large part identified with the state itself. ONF would need to displace this sprawling, powerful and extremely well-known organization. Such a transition would create difficulties for elites, who have used the framework of United Russia to secure their political careers and in some cases other advantages.
One of United Russia’s greatest uses has been as a tool for leaders to manage elites: in return for power, success and other rewards, United Russia elites have demonstrated the greatest party loyalty that Russian politics has ever seen, which in turn has ensured the success of the party. Once this virtuous cycle is upset, for example by a drop in public support or loss of Putin’s backing, elites are likely to jump ship. In such a scenario, elites might shift support to Kremlin-backed ONF—given the rising numbers of United Russia members joining ONF, this process might have already begun—but they might also pursue other avenues to power, particularly if the United Russia model is seen as a failure. Managing these processes, even for the Kremlin, would be a difficult, expensive and even chaotic endeavor.
These questions are unlikely to be resolved at the upcoming congress. Though the Putin regime has been generally inventive in dealing with mass politics, ONF has thus far demonstrated a lack of creativity and vision, which is unlikely to enhance its utility. At the congress, the movement is expected to take a new name: All-Russia People’s Front—For Russia! (Общероссийский народный фронт — за Россию!). An ONF member told Kommersant that with the name change, the movement seeks to “a wording that will maximize the transfer of [their] goals.” For the time being, what those goals really are remains unclear.