A permanent front line?

April can easily become a turning point in Russian politics. Оn 17 April, next Wednesday Dmitry Medvedev will address the State Duma to present the achievements of his government in the past year. He has all reasons to feel uncomfortable: despite a slight improvement in the recent past, the government’s popularity ratings are still hitting record low levels. Worse even, Medvedev has become the target of constant attacks in the past couple of months: the siloviki resurgence coupled with a fierce battle for the potential succession of Vladimir Putin set practically every power group against Medvedev. Some of them probably want to do away with the governing United Russia party as well, but his own party seems to rebel against the Prime Minister too. The last instance to mark this disarray was last week’s attacks on education minister Dmitry Livanov, in which some United Russia members willingly collaborated with Communist lawmakers. In fact, Livanov may be the second ’Medvedev minister’ forced to leave the government after Anatoly Serdyukov. At the same time, Vladimir Putin seems to feel that he has regained at least some of his famous confidence: so much, that he has apparently agreed to schedule a brand new edition of his infamous ’live shows’ for the end of April. Does this mean that the fortunes of Putin and Medvedev have irrevocably started to diverge? And in what way has the situation changed around Putin, anyway?

One of the most grotesque moments of the ’castling” of Putin and Medvedev in 2011-12 was the election of the latter as the chairman of United Russia. Medvedev and the liberal circle around him had always held the governing party in contempt. After all, United Russia with leaders such as Boris Gryzlov and regional leaders that arguably did a lot for the party to be adequately called ’the party of crooks and thieves’ was a huge obstacle of Medvedev’s modernising policies. Furthermore, United Russia has become an obsolete political brand. While it did survive the 2011 Duma election as the party of power, it is quite doubtful whether it could be able to muster a majority now. Technically, the reform of the electoral legislation under review in the State Duma may result in a reinforced majority of the governing party but it certainly would not resolve the legitimacy question. Anyone attacking United Russia in the upper or lower echelons of the Russian elite today has ample basis to do so.

One party, two guv’nors – one fiefdom, two parties

Although Dmitry Medvedev is certainly useful to Vladimir Putin (also as a ‘media puffer’ cushioning public anger, as Gazeta.ru put it), it seems that his political future will primarily depend on whether and how quickly he can reform United Russia. In his excuse, he is trying. In the past couple of weeks the Prime Minister has chastised United Russia deputies for their aggressive behaviour with the media and his most recent initiative was to suggest a ‘zero reading’ for important laws, that is, to tighten the government’s control over the legislative agenda.

This latter effort tells a lot about the problems with United Russia and its reform. The governing party does not have only one ‘guv’nor’– it has at least two. While Medvedev is formally the chairman of the party, its legislative agenda is largely dictated by Sergei Ivanov, the head of the Presidential Administration. Thus, while Medvedev, as party chairman, has to take full responsibility for the corruption affairs – some of them exposed arguably with the help of Ivanov – while he can hardly control how his deputies vote (for the record: sources claim even Ivanov’s men have sometimes difficulties with making United Russia deputies toe the line). And now there’s the case of Dmitry Livanov.

But the future of United Russia will to a large extent depend on how another political project, the All-Russian People’s Front (ONF) turns out. As I have blogged earlier, seemingly an elite group led by Vyacheslav Volodin, Ivanov’s deputy is behind the efforts to set up the ONF as the main governing party or at least a powerful and pivotal political force.

Indeed, there is an increasing number of signs indicating the rapidly growing influence and importance of ONF. I have already touched upon the rapprochement of Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin to the political alliance – now it seems that an upcoming revamp of the Moscow political power may end up in the remaining old United Russia cadres being sidelined, possibly in favour of ONF-related officials. At the beginning of April two political entities, formerly belonging to the opposition signalled their readiness to cooperate with the pro-Putin front: Yaroslavl mayor Yevgeny Urlashov and the party ’A Just Russia’ that has visibly started to return to the side of its creators after an opposition ’swing’. Urlashov, notably, emphasised that while he was open to cooperation with ONF, he absolutely distances himself from United Russia. What is more, United Russia’s parliamentary deputies that are also ONF members will apparently follow a strategy different from the official line of the party on 17 April, in the debate following the Prime Minister’s speech. That is, they will vocally criticise Medvedev.

Now, even if the two challenges Medvedev faces on the eve of his speech – Livanov’s situation and ONF’s critical challenge – are not connected, but only, as influential pundit Yevgeny Minchenko argues, happening at the same time, their coincidence may be the straw to break the camel’s back and create unrepairable cracks in the governing party and in the relation of the party and its chairman. But how difficult the situation really is?

In the past couple of months there has been increasing talk about the demise or even the disappearance of United Russia as the party of power. This is, however, exaggeration. United Russia was a quite successful project for a long time. As the solid political basis of the Putin and the Medvedev presidencies, it has built up such a system of political clientele and acquired such a vast amount of administrative resources and local power that is unprecedented since the times of the CPSU.

United Russia may be a failing political brand but it is also a huge political organisation and – at least in the short term – as long as someone sees an opportunity in building on this, United Russia is here to stay. It may become the political platform of Sergei Ivanov, if he decides to have one, or alternatively – if ONF gets to be the main governing party – the political base of technocrats, provided that the shift in its position gives way to substantial reforms within the party.

The conflict may even turn out to be a part of a master plan aiming, as I have blogged before, at getting the most of the new electoral rules: ONF standing behind independent candidates in problematic regions, with United Russia benefitting from the party lists and single-mandate districts in regions where the party is traditionally strong. This solution was implied in a recent editorial in Nezavisimaya Gazeta too. This however presumes ONF being cast for an important, yet second-rank role. Considering the buzz around the organisation and the likely ambitions of the men standing behind it, this can hardly be a point of balance.

The new laws of political physics

So what is ONF, actually? First and foremost, it is a new way of communication between Putin and the Russian voters. Putin, a politician who self-confessedly hated electoral campaigns, had to realise in the past decade that he functions the best in campaign-like but uncompetitive situations: when he – as the person in charge – can talk to people and resolve problems on the spot, but without any alternatives present to challenge his supremacy. Putin’s ‘call-in show’ that he did not abandon even in the aftermath of the 2011 protests and that he intends to bring back at the end of this month is an example of this. ONF could be an extension of this method of communication. Just an example: the association plans to hold ‘mini-congresses’ in each of the 83 regions of Russia, emphasising its freshness and openness to people’s everyday problems. By doing this, it reinforces Putin, but to be credible as a problem solving ‘service provider association’ at the first place, it also needs Putin as a symbol.

Putin’s main gambit may be exactly to create a competitive political system for the elite with political structures for which he is indispensable. He is indispensable for ONF because it is built around him and lives on his legitimacy – it could not be rebuilt around Volodin or Sobyanin overnight. He is equally indispensable for United Russia not only because United Russia’s core voter base probably largely overlaps with the hard core of Putin’s, but because Putin’s close associates will oversee the kompromats connected to the party.

As I have indicated many times before, ‘kompromat’ will be the buzzword of the coming years in Russia. The most important difference between Putin’s early years and his third term is where the weights and the pivotal points are in the power vertical. In Putin’s early years the secret services and energy industries were the key points. While they remain undoubtedly important today, the key for the next couple of years will be financial oversight and anti-corruption bodies. First of all, the economic crisis has shown the importance of sound economic management as opposed to living on energy dollars, and the danger of Russia’s economic imbalances, a threat that still exists today.  Second, Putin’s system is 13 years old: it has already created itself a large depository of kompromat files, a powerful kind of ammunition at a time when the wealth that can be redistributed among the elite gets scarcer.

Putin seems to have recognised the new rules of power. He put Elvira Nabiullina, a loyal associate to the helm of the central bank to oversee the financial market. He appointed his ‘to-do-man’, Yevgeny Shkolov, a long-time friend from the KGB days to chair the body responsible to oversee the income declarations of officials. He apparently toys with the idea of appointing another trusted ally, Tatiana Golikova to head the Supreme Audit Chamber. Even the dozen United Russia deputies he more or less controls himself are placed strategically to anti-corruption bodies, as I have blogged about before. Ensuring a sound economic management for a longer term seems to be a trickier issue for now, but ‘unorthodox’ solutions can sometimes come handy: the creation of a position outside the government to determine the economic policy course of the country would certainly be one of these – and later why not appoint Dmitry Medvedev to it, after his dismissal as Prime Minister, or Alexei Kudrin, for that matter?

Indeed, if Putin can pull the trick of tightening his grip on the elite, he can even allow conflicting elite groups to compete in the political realm. As long as the elite is unable or unwilling to think outside the box called Vladimir Putin, he is fine. How long he can go on like this depends on the maths. That is, whether he can confidently put a majority behind himself and what he symbolises. For the time being, with the proportion of Russians that do not want to see Putin running for a fourth term standing at 55%, it seems that the ultimate red line is 2018.  And even by then, Vladimir Putin will have to switch to constant campaigning mode.

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