This certainly began earlier, but the sacking of Yuri Luzhkov again directed the attention to the state and the future role of the United Russia party. The Moscow branch of the party was the only political organisation that openly supported Luzhkov, contrary to the silence of the central bodies of the party and notably Vladimir Putin. The subsequent appointment of Sergey Sobyanin to the head of the capital raised the question whether a mini-tandem would be needed to consolidate the Moscow branch. RFE/RL went as far as suggesting these mini-tandems would lead every single region of the country. This suggestion, as plausible as it sounds, raises some question marks. Maybe the leaders of Russia are trying to kill two birds with one stone?
The appointment of Sobyanin to his new position was not a surprise. On the other hand, the man who succeeded him in his previous position raised some eyebrows. Vyacheslav Volodin, vice-speaker of the State Duma is not the cool-headed pragmatist bureaucrat he is about to follow. He is, on the contrary, a politician well rooted in United Russia and his appointment as the Chief of Staff of the Prime Minister and, also importantly, to the President’s Modernisation Council serves important purposes. Volodin is supposed to start restructuring the party to fit the new situation of the country by bringing it closer to both modernisation and Vladimir Putin.
Some time ago there was some speculation about the so-called civiliki circle and namely Dmitry Medvedev aiming at liquidating United Russia which they find obsolete and inefficient. The appointment of Volodin shows this is clearly not the case. Putin surely decided that he would solve this problem by restructuring the party rather than letting its obvious problems lead to a collapse (or, even worse, imbalance).
In this sense, we cannot speak about a plan to “separate” the party from its national leaders by making regional branches more idologically an politically autonomous (that’s what RFE/RL suggests, as I understand it). The opposite seems to be happening. By including an otherwise popular policy mantra, and the otherwise popular Vladimir Putin more at the regional level, the tandem will be able to consolidate the party and its voters to support whatever decision is made for after 2012.
This does not need regional tandems. Well, certainly not tandems like Medvedev and Putin. We have not seen a system like this being worked out this year anyway, although Medvedev replaced a considerable number of governors, among them a lot of problematic ones (Boos, Shaimiev, Luzhkov, etc.). New governors seem to be rather “pragmatic agents”, who will prepare the ground for the central “Politbüro” to accomplish its will. Moscow, certainly, is something different, but otherwise, appointing a silent bureaucrat who is not likely to stay more than two terms anyway seems just as good, or better than appointing mini-tandems that may need fine tuning.
The important point is not how it is carried out. What is essential is that after two years of experimenting with the party system and United Russia’s future role (reflected in the strikingly different ways regional and municipal elections were carried out in 2009-10), the leaders of Russia seem to have made up their minds to transform United Russia into a real party of power, to fit a critical era and to fit tandemocracy. And if this is what is happening, Vladimir Putin can actually maintain more power by remaining the unofficial or the official leader of United Russia than by returning to the presidency.
We might see a new Secretary General emerging.