Managing Democracy: Political Parties and the State in Russia

Hans Oversloot & Ruben Verheul. Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics. Volume 22, Issue 3. 2006.

In the former Soviet Union and its satellites, the communist party and the state overlapped. Decision making in all spheres of life was in effect done within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), which was effectively above the law and accountable only to itself. Public offices were staffed through the CPSU’s nomenklatura system.

After the demise of the CPSU in 1991, what remained of the Russian state was left party-less, and after the failed coup of August 1991 Russia was actually a dictatorship. The state itself, legitimized by the people’s deputies and the President—not any party—was instrumental in reasserting state power for the people and instrumental in re-creating order in the Russian Federation (RF). The very concept of ‘party’ was strongly, negatively, associated with the party, namely the CPSU, which Yeltsin and the ‘new democrats’ (sometimes working together in the Democratic Russia movement) had managed to curtail. Following the dissolution of the Soviet-era parliament, and the adoption of a new Constitution, the first genuine multiparty elections of December 1993 finally gave parties a meaningful, albeit limited, role in the political process.

This study deals with the party-state relationships that have arisen since then. Seeking to determine the extent to which political parties in Russia have been able to assert themselves vis-à-vis the state, and whether they are able to make use of the state, we first look at current party-state links in Russia on three dimensions: public regulation of political parties, public funding of political parties, and patronage. As some accounts demonstrate, state capture in conditions of post-communism has followed diverse patterns, for various reasons and with varying degrees of politicization. But the general trend seems to be towards increasing control of parties over the state. Coupled with the ‘cartelization’ observed in established democracies, this means a shift from parties acting as agents of society to parties representing and managing state institutions. In our analysis, the Russian case is markedly different. We observe that it is the state that is colonizing the parties, rather than vice versa.

We then propose a categorization of the parties in Russia. Most attention will be given to the so-called parties of power, for these reflect the extent to which, and the mechanisms by which, the state manages party politics and the administrative elites keep politics out of the state. We conclude that recent reforms by the Putin administration point towards more, rather than less, encroachment of the state in party politics.

The Relevance of Parties

While the Russian state was under construction and the new rules of the game were being written, the parties had to content themselves with a marginal role, both at the apex of the political system and within the society at large. Office benefits they can offer are confined by and large to a seat in parliament, the State Duma. And even there, as we shall see, parties have limited control.

The presidency, as will be shown below, has so far been beyond the reach of parties. Both Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin remained aloof from party politics throughout their tenure. While they both employed political parties as support vehicles, and made several attempts to create ‘workable’ majorities in parliament, their actual power base lay elsewhere. Given the zero-sum nature of the presidential contest, and the volatility of the Russian electorate, Yeltsin and Putin have been careful not to bet on one horse and tie their fate to any particular party. As presidents of ‘all Russians’, they claimed wide-ranging legitimacy and room for manoeuvre.

Appointments to and careers in the executive—government and state bureaucracy—based on party affiliation are the exception rather than the rule. In Russia, it is the president who selects and appoints the members of the government. Parliamentary approval is required only for the prime minister. The Duma can refuse to confirm the president’s nomination, but at a high price: ‘blocking’ three consecutive nominations results in the dissolution of the Duma and new elections. The prime ministers of choice of both Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin have so far been a-political figures: ‘technocrats’, career bureaucrats and professionals from large state enterprises.

The following table illustrates this point. Listed are the prime ministers who have served under Yeltsin and Putin. Where applicable, we have indicated their involvement in a party organization, both at the ‘time of arrival’ and after their tenure. As is clear, with the exception of Khristenko none of Russia’s prime ministers had a party political background initially. During or after serving their term, however, some of them became prominent leaders of parties of power (see below). The technocratic image applies to the cabinet of ministers as a whole. Of the 19 ministers currently staffing Mikhail Fradkov’s core cabinet, only five can be linked to a political party.

Name Period Affiliated/involved with party before appointment Affiliated/involved with party during/after term in office
Yegor Gaidar 1992 Demokraticheskii vybor Rossii; Soyuz pravykh sil
Viktor Chernomyrdin 1992-1998 Nash Dom-Rossiya
Sergei Kirienko 1998 Soyuz pravykh sil
Viktor Chernomyrdin 1998
Yevgenii Primakov 1998-1999 Otechestvo-Vsya Rossiya
Sergei Stepashin 1999
Vladimir Putin 1999-2000
Mikhail Kas’yanov 2000-2004 Planning to launch an ‘opposition party’
Viktor Khristenko 2004 Nash Dom-Rossiya
Mikhail Fradkov 2004-present
Source: Compiled by authors.

The same goes for other government officials. Bringing together data from several printed sources, Allen Lynch notes that ‘35 percent of all deputy ministers appointed between 2000 and 2003 [are military or security officers], and 25 percent of the Russian political elite as a whole for the same period (compared to 11 percent for business elites), representing a sixfold increase in military and security representation in government leadership posts since the late Soviet period. … [T]wo-thirds of Putin’s presidential staff have backgrounds in the security services’.

Presidential nominations at the regional level follow a similar pattern. Five of the seven presidential representatives who were appointed in the seven federal districts (North-West, Central, Southern, Volga, Ural, Siberian, and Far Eastern), had a background in either the military or the security forces (KGB and FSB).

The only way in which political parties fulfil a political recruitment function and control access to political office is through elections, most importantly those for the State Duma (the federal parliament). Up until recently, Duma seats were contested under a mixed system, which combines plurality voting with proportional representation (PR). This formula was introduced in 1993, and maintained for the parliaments elected in December 1995, December 1999, and December 2003. Half of the 450 Duma seats were elected in single-member districts (odnomandatnye izbiratel’nye okruga, SMD) according to the first-past-the-post principle; the other half within one single nation-wide district (federal’nyi izbiratel’nyi okrug), with the help of ‘party lists’ (PL), each independently of the other. For the PL part, a five per cent threshold was set. Both the SMD and the PL contests employ categorical ballots, which means that voters can express their preference for only one candidate or PL; the latter is closed—voters cannot express any preference for individual candidates.

The PL elections are the most important domain for Russia’s parties, since by default they nominate candidates for these elections. The SMD, however, were not their chasse gardée. There, party candidates had to compete against individuals, and they have not been so successful: many SMD-deputies were elected à titre personnel, as ‘independents’ (nezavisimye). This weakness in the regions (sub”ekty) is also reflected in the fact that most heads of the regions (‘governors’ as they are informally called) are not party politicians. To this day, the ‘reach’ of the parties is fairly limited; only a few of them have grassroots organizations and serious representation beyond Moscow. In his research on this phenomenon, Grigorii Golosov found that ‘What matters is not what the candidate can gain entirely or partly with the help of the party (i.e. party support and incumbency, respectively), but something that candidates can gain mostly independently from the party’.

Political entrepreneurs tend to see parties merely as instrumental. They rarely invest in maintaining and strengthening party organizations, relying on their own informal networks instead. This does not of itself make Russia a special case. As John Aldrich puts it, politicians ‘turn to their party—that is use its powers, resources, and institutional forms—when they believe doing so increases their prospects for winning desired outcomes, and they turn from it if it does not’. What sets Russia apart is that this logic in practice translates into an unusually fluid and unstable party system: parties—party labels—come and go with every election.

Recent changes in Russia’s institutional structure may further reinforce the general weakness of parties. Following the dramatic siege of School No.1 in Beslan in the Republic of North Ossetia, which took the lives of over 300 people, President Putin in autumn 2004 announced a wholesale reform of ‘state power’, asserting that, in order to combat terrorism, strengthening the state was crucial. Characteristically for Putin’s overall programme, this boiled down to recentralizing the state. Two measures were announced: the abolition of direct elections to the heads of the federal subjects; and the abolition of the SMD portion of the Duma elections. Whatever the link with terrorism, the fact that the post of ‘governor’ will no longer be directly elected is likely to further weaken the grip of parties on regional executives.

The consequences of the shift from mixed to entirely proportional Duma elections (scheduled for the end of 2007) are less obvious, however. On the one hand, this may strengthen the parties and offer them an incentive to expand their geographical reach beyond the proverbial ‘Moscow Garden Ring’. They will no longer face the competition of independents. With parties in control of the candidate nomination process, aspirants to parliamentary seats will have to earn party endorsement. On the other hand, sceptically speaking, the ‘nationalization’ of the Duma ballot gives the central authorities even more control over party competition, leaving less room for manoeuvre and for local initiatives aimed at autonomous party formation.

A third measure, also linked to the battle against terrorism, is less ambiguous in its impact upon parties. Early in 2005, Putin ordered the creation of a Public Chamber (Obshchestvennaya palata). This institution, a kind of ‘third chamber’ of parliament, is supposed to act as a collective ombudsman, supervising government, the Duma, the media and law enforcement agencies. It was due to convene in January 2006 and number 126 members, a third of them handpicked by the president from among ‘widely recognized and respected personalities’, in consultation with NGOs; these 42 members in turn decide on the remaining members (one-third representing federal and one-third representing regional NGOs). Representatives of parties are expressly excluded from membership. It remains to be seen what the Public Chamber will amount to in practice, but this apparent bypassing of the Duma sends a clear signal to the parties inhabiting it: legitimation (and even criticism) can be organized without them.

State Regulation of Parties

The immaturity of Russia’s party system has often been criticized. Many politicians and commentators lamented the lack of a specific law safeguarding or delimiting the role of parties: ‘under-regulation’ was thought to be at the root of the disorder. Legislation applying to political parties, such as the perestroika-era law on public associations, was enacted prior to the ‘legalization’ of multiple parties, and lacked sophistication and the tools to regulate party activity. Yet it took years of debates to adopt the 2001 law on political parties. With this law, the Putin administration claimed finally to create some order, to be understood in terms of fewer, more enduring and more transparent parties.

The law and its 2004 amendments define quite strictly what it takes to be considered a political party de jure, and what are the concomitant rights and obligations. Party status—and thus access to the electoral arena and state funding (see below)—is dependent on membership (parties must have a broad membership base) and territorial diffusion (parties must be represented throughout the Federation). In specific terms, parties: (1) should have regional chapters in at least half of the subjects of the RF, (2) each numbering at least 500 members (other regional chapters require at least 250 members); and (3) must have a total membership of at least 50,000 citizens. These members are to have equal access to leading positions within their organizations. Party status, furthermore, is dependent on continued participation in the electoral process: a party (4) must field candidates in federal, regional or local elections at least once every five years, otherwise it loses its status. It does not matter whether parties stage electoral campaigns alone, or in collaboration with others.

Parties and their regional branches must annually update the ministry of justice regarding their whereabouts, activities, candidate nominations, and the number of members (since the 2004 amendment, they are also required to present a list of their members). On the basis of this information, the ministry can verify whether a party still ‘exists’. Practice has shown that the state does not hesitate to use its powers vis-à-vis quasi- or pseudo-parties: quite a number of parties have been de-registered since 2003. These bans are unlikely to have had any significant effect on the ‘power configuration’, however, since they concern organizations in the margins of the party landscape; in any case, they did not provoke public debate. But it is difficult to tell whether all cases have received equal treatment. A large-scale audit operation was apparently planned for October 2005, following which it was expected that about half of the registered parties would not retain their status. In January 2006, Rosregistratsiya (the ministry of justice’s Federal Registration Service) listed 32 parties (and 25 that were de-registered).

The law gives the state considerable leverage over the parties, but it also claims to delineate the state from the parties. State agencies and public officials may not interfere at will in party affairs; parties, in turn, may not meddle in organs of state power (except legislatures), law enforcement, the armed forces and education. Public officials—while they are not excluded from party membership—may not use their posts to further the interests of their parties. In turn, public officials cannot be bound by party decisions in the performance of their duties. The president of the RF has the right to suspend their own party membership during their term of office. This clause—given its non-committal wording—appears to be rather gratuitous, but in the Russian context it matters, of course, whether or not the president is a party figure.

The procedures for admitting newly founded parties and monitoring existing ones are spelled out in great detail. To begin with, all aspects of a party’s existence stand or fall with its registration, at both the central and regional levels. It is mandatory that newly founded parties submit to the ‘registering organs’—the ministry of justice—their charters, programme, the minutes of the regional founding conference or conferences, and their contact details, inter alia. On the face of it, registration is a bureaucratic hurdle that can be cleared with relative ease; moreover, registration can be denied on only a few grounds, mostly procedural. The submitted documentation must be adequate and the charter must be in line with legislation (or vague enough in order to avoid conflicts). The only substantive obstacle to registration is that programmatic ‘anti-system’ provisions, described above, are inadmissible. Otherwise, a party’s programme is irrelevant for its legalization.

Party Funding

One of the most controversial issues in the debate on the law on parties was state funding. Previously, electoral associations were entitled to modest compensation of their campaign expenses, as set forth in various electoral laws, which were usually rewritten for each specific election. The party law envisages permanent state funding for parties that (1) obtain at least three per cent of the list vote in Duma elections; or (2) get at least 12 SMD candidates elected to the Duma (in which case the ‘three per cent threshold’ is not applicable); or (3) collect a minimum of three per cent of the votes for their presidential nominee. The first two results—those achieved in parliamentary elections—give right to a yearly subvention; the latter—the presidential vote—is translated into a non-recurrent subsidy. In all the above cases, the number of votes received is multiplied by 0.005 times the minimum wage (minimal’nyi razmer oplaty truda, MROT). Other sources of income, besides state funding, are membership dues, donations by sympathetic ‘outsiders’ (both individuals and firms) and entrepreneurial activity. There appears to be no maximum set for membership fees; the authors of the law most likely expected these to remain within reasonable limits. But restrictions and ceilings are established for donations (pozhertvovaniya) from without the party ranks. Donors can be Russian citizens and legal persons; funds from abroad are expressly outlawed. The total sum of yearly contributions may not exceed 10 million MROT (about US$100 million).

Data regarding the actual flow of state funds to party bank accounts since 2003 have yet to be published. In that sense, the party law’s attempt at transparency has not been achieved. Yet, in order to appraise the potential state contribution to party maintenance, consider the following two examples, calculated on the basis of the list vote in the December 1999 Duma elections (the last elections held before the party law was enacted) and a MROT of 300 roubles (about $10): the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (the winner in that year’s list) would be entitled to a yearly subsidy of almost $810,000; Yabloko, which finished last, would earn almost $198,000.

Such donations from the state appear to be rather modest, in absolute terms. The relative weight of state subsidies in party budgets is another matter. Some parties generate a considerable income from membership dues and, especially, donations. The limited—and unfortunately incomplete—data available suggest that the latter constitute the bulk of parties’ income. The Union of Right Forces (Soyuz pravykh sil: SPS) and United Russia (Yedinaya Rossiya: UR) are particularly successful fund-raisers. For other parties, however, state subventions account for the bulk of their official income. Of course, party accounting is to be taken with a pinch of salt, for the ‘official’ data that parties disclose are likely to be incomplete.

These figures, with the exception of those for SPS and UR, might suggest that politics in Russia is not really a capital-intensive affair. Yet, campaigning in Russia is big business, especially for office-holders. Take, for example, the 1996 presidential elections, in which Boris Yeltsin—who was highly unpopular at the time—competed against opposition leader Gennadii Zyuganov. According to Andrew Wilson, spending in this election surpassed that in the 2000 contest for the American presidency: ‘Yeltsin’s victory in 1996 required somewhere between $1 and $2 billion … By comparison, even with the constant escalation of expenditure in American elections, the total official amount raised in 2000 was only $529 million ($193 million for George Bush, $133 million for Al Gore, plus others)’. Lilia Shevtsova’s estimate is lower, at between $700 million and $1 billion. Yet she points out that public spending in 1996 skyrocketed, because the Yeltsin administration took ‘popularity measures’ (paying wage and pension arrears, building metros, and so on). During Yeltsin’s campaign, Russia’s external debt rose by $4 billion, while its internal debt grew by $16 billion.

Co-sponsorship of political parties by businessmen is the rule rather than the exception in Russia. Corporate funding is usually clouded in secrecy, but it can be safely assumed that all major parties in Russia enjoy such support and that the bulk of it goes to the ‘parties of power’. These have the leverage to solicit contributions and access to the spoils for delivery. But as a rule they do not monopolize donations, being interested in the upkeep of the party system as a whole, not merely the infusion of funds into their own electoral organizations.

Only on rare occasions does this lead to scandals, lawsuits or both. The Khodorkovskii case is the exception to this rule. His sponsorship of SPS, of Yabloko, and even of the KPRF in preparation for the 2003 State Duma elections was clearly intended neither to support the regime nor to help the party of power indirectly. Khodorkovskii had political ambitions of his own; it was assumed that he would eventually have gone for the highest prize, bypassing the power-brokers and the plans they might have for Putin or for Putin’s succession. Khodorkovskii was confronted with criminal investigations concerning his business dealings, and in the spring of 2005 he was sentenced to nine years in prison for a series of financial crimes.

There have been instances where businessmen went a step further and attempted to launch parties of their own (for example, Konstantin Borovoi’s Party of Economic Freedom). But these projects have proved to be ineffective and short-lived. A much safer investment, it seems, is infiltrating existing electorally successful parties. Vladimir Zhirinovskii’s Liberal-Democratic Party (LDPR) is notorious for selling Duma seats to the highest bidder. However, it is by no means the only party that maintains close ties to business: even the Communist Party (KPRF) runs party lists on which ‘red’ business tycoons figure prominently.

The Functioning of Russia’s Pseudo-Parties

Having outlined above the institutional and legal framework in which parties in Russia operate, we now shift our focus to the functioning of parties themselves. Given the volatile nature of the Russian party system, we think a categorization is in place. Political parties in present-day Russia for the most part fit into the following categories:

  • The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) fills a category of its own. It is the continuation and slimmed-down version of the single party of the past; it is heir to the CPSU (and the Communist Party of Russia), in terms of its cadres, membership, organizing principles, and much of its ideology (and probably to a part of the CPSU’s finances as well).Since 1993, and to the present, the KPRF has been the only real mass party, with a membership of close to 500,000 for well over a decade.
  • Other ‘genuine parties’. These are not Duvergerian mass parties but cadre parties. The social-liberal Yabloko party is the main representative of this category. It has been active since 1993, but is not represented in the State Duma at present, as it failed to pass the five per cent threshold for the PL vote in the December 2003 elections. Its support is concentrated in the big cities, notably St. Petersburg and Moscow. Yabloko caters primarily for highly educated urban professionals and the remaining intelligentsia.
  • A third category is the so-called ‘party of power’ (partiya vlasti).
  • Yet another holds what we suggest calling ‘party of power helper parties’, among which several sub-categories can be distinguished: (4a) ‘satellite’ parties and (4b) ‘adjunct’ or ‘alternative’ parties of power. Satellite parties of power circle round the party of power, attract a small number of voters who do not identify themselves with the electoral branch of the party of power proper, but whose actual mode of behaviour is supportive of the party of power. Satellite parties are not opposition parties: the SPS, at least initially, was such a party. ‘Adjunct’ or ‘alternative’ parties of power do not distinguish themselves ideologically from parties of power, only the cadre and the leadership are different. The adjunct party is quite acceptable to the party of power; in fact it is set up by the power-holders (to which category the adjunct party’s leadership belongs), but it is not yet operational as the electoral branch of the real party of power—instead it is kept in reserve. Its two major functions seem to be to serve as a testing-ground for political and administrative personnel, and to keep local leaders of the party of power alert and disciplined. Their replacement, it might be said, is on permanent display in the adjunct party.
  • Also important are the ‘favoured opposition parties’. Their purpose is to express opposition to the regime, to serve as ‘alternatives’ to the party of power, and to channel the electorate’s dislike of the power-holders. Favoured opposition parties are created or co-opted or at least aided by the power-holders to help gather the votes of the disenchanted and other oppositionists in order to disarm the real, independent, opposition, and transform citizens’ votes for opposition parties into regime support via the votes of their representatives in parliament. Oppositionist sentiment is transformed via these parties into actual policy support in the legislative body. These parties mimic opposition parties, and may even present themselves as anti-system parties, but they are professional double-crossers and fakers. We have given these parties their own separate category, but much is to be said for categorizing them among the ‘party of power helper parties’; nevertheless they are special in that they thrive by being successful in suggesting they are not.
  • The number of subcategories can be extend further by distinguishing the species of ‘harassment-parties’ (in Russian: mukhi, flies) and ‘harassment-candidates’, or, if one prefers, ‘parties of distraction’. These are parties with no other function than to hamper opposition parties, for example by using a similar party label and defending a similar political programme, or by organizing the risk of mistaken identity by putting candidates on the ballot with the same name (preferably the same first name, the same patronymic and the same family name) as the candidate selected by the power-holders for harassment.In effect these are ‘helper parties’ too, but also help by suggesting they are not what they are.
  • A final category is what could be called ‘vanity parties’ or ‘advertisement’ or ‘self-advertisement parties’ (and associated vanity candidates), which seem to exist for the sole purpose of providing party support for a candidate who stands little or no chance of winning a seat, or being voted into office, but who loves the limelight and the general public’s attention. An example is Vladimir Bryntsalov, who managed to get elected to the State Duma in December 1995, and was the founder of the Russian Socialist Party in 1996. There is little of a socialist discernible in this crook and multimillionaire, the kind of person who gives even ‘new Russians’ a bad name, and who was a hopeless candidate in, inter alia, the 1996 RF presidential election. Sometimes vanity and business acumen go very well together. Having access to the corridors of power (and having voting power in legislative bodies) can be economically rewarding.

Category 3 and following parties, with the exception of ‘vanity parties’, are set up or co-opted and heavily sponsored by the political power holders, that is, by the presidential administration or the government in a wider sense: by federal ministers, federal services heads and their apparatuses. They operate directly, or indirectly, such as by organizing support by ‘favoured business leaders’, who thereby hope to receive preferential treatment by the administration. Many of these parties have their beginning close to the federal political centre, Moscow, and from there branch out more or less intensively to the federal subjects’ centres—the capitals of the 89 provinces, republics, autonomous regions and other units that constitute the federation. In some cases parties were set up and sponsored by the heads of the executive branches of subjects of the federation, and were to branch out from there. Noteworthy examples of these ‘local’ parties of power were Fatherland (Otechestvo) and All Russia (Vsya Rossiya) (see below).

Parties of Power

We suggest that the most interesting, and quintessential, element of Russia’s party system—and political system as a whole—is the phenomenon of ‘party of power’. The party of power defines Russia’s party political scene, as it also generates the concomitant ‘party of power helper parties’, and ‘favoured parties of opposition’. Here, the party-state relationship theme—the encroachment of the state apparatus into electoral politics—comes to the fore to its full effect.

We need to clarify at the outset that in Russia there is no ruling party in the ‘ordinary’ sense. Certainly, there exists at any given moment close to Duma elections (which precede presidential elections) an organization set up, financed and staffed by the RF’s political centre (presidential administration cum government) which presents and recommends its candidates for parliament. The aim of the party of power is to ensure political support in the legislative branch for the present or future head of the executive branch and their komanda (team). If this enterprise is successful, reference is to what is merely the temporary electoral branch of the true ‘party of power’ as ‘the ruling party’. Russia’s Choice (Vybor Rossii: VR), Our Home is Russia (Nash Dom-Rossiya: NDR), Unity (Yedinstvo) and United Russia (Yedinaya Rossiya) were never ‘ruling parties’. Describing them as ‘ruling parties’ reverses cause and effect and inverts its members’ actual dependencies and loyalties.

The party of power is not the party of power because it is the formal organization that, having succeeded in getting its candidates elected, exerts power as a coherent unit of people’s representatives in the legislative or in the executive branch of government. The party of power is the actual group whose members wield power in and through the executive branch of government, and which creates an ‘electoral branch’ in order to hold on to power by organizing adequate support in the legislative branch of government. Formally a party, or a so-called political bloc, these organizations have so far been created ad hoc. The party of power’s centre of gravity is always located in the executive branch of government and its actual centre is the future president of the Russian Federation. The so-called ‘ruling party’ does not have a life of its own; it is in fact neither ‘ruling’ nor much of a party at all.

In Russian history since 1993, the ‘party of power’ has been (or has produced) not one but a succession of electoral organizations. Each Duma election has brought to the fore another political party serving as the electoral branch of the party of power. In the December 1993 elections, VR was the executive’s designated winner. It may have been less President Yeltsin’s favourite than acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar’s intended support-group. Yeltsin probably did not want to commit himself too much, since his stance was above all anti-communist. VR came first at the polls, but was a less clear winner than Yeltsin’s komanda or team had counted on.

The failure of VR to secure an overwhelming majority in the Duma eventually prompted Yeltsin to dismiss Gaidar and some of his ministers. Out of power, the leaders of VR could no longer claim to be power brokers. Their response was an attempt to convert VR into a membership-based party, tightly organized, with closed and disciplined ranks. Russia’s Choice renamed itself Russia’s Democratic Choice (Demokraticheskii vybor Rossii: DVR) but this strategy did not succeed. Some representatives of the older organizations of Democratic Russia, weary of centralized control, preferred to stick to the movement mode of organization and split off. More importantly, voters also turned their backs on the party: in the December 1995 elections, DVR fell back from 76 to a mere nine seats (out of a total of 450 in the State Duma). It even failed to cross the five per cent threshold in the party-list vote.

In preparation for the December 1995 State Duma elections a new electoral vehicle for the party of power was set up: Our Home Is Russia (Nash Dom-Rossiya: NDR). This movement, launched in May 1995, was headed by Viktor Chernomyrdin, Gaidar’s successor as prime minister, and much less of a market ideologist, more a Soviet style managing director—literally, as he had been heading Russia’s natural gas giant Gazprom. As with VR in the early days, NDR was able to make use of governmental and other state facilities (so-called administrative resources) and enjoyed the help of private businessmen and state enterprise managers who were either ordered or expected to provide support, or volunteered to do so, eager to ingratiate themselves with those in the highest echelons of state power.

Like VR in 1993, NDR fell short of what was hoped for and expected of it: Chernomyrdin’s party managed to win only 55 seats. NDR was more successful as an ‘operator’ at the regional level (and thus more successful in the second chamber)—at least until the spring of 1998—by cleverly supporting and co-opting certain candidates for governorships, sometimes incumbents, sometimes main opponents, some of whom were and some of whom were not formal members of NDR, but close enough to warrant the investment.

In March 1998, Chernomyrdin was dismissed as prime minister by President Yeltsin. The reasons given for Chernomyrdin’s dismissal were that a new political-economic situation required a change at the helm of the cabinet and an overall change of government, and that Chernomyrdin, relieved of his duties as prime minister, could now devote himself to leading NDR and prepare himself for the presidency. In fact, to dismiss Chernomyrdin as prime minister was the worst way to ‘help’ Chernomyrdin, if Yeltsin was serious in his attempt to support him for the presidency. Deprived of his power-base—a senior post in the executive branch of government—Chernomyrdin lost the means to further his candidacy and lost his attraction as a potential winner in the presidential contest. Who would jump on the bandwagon now? Quite a number of politicians started looking for a better place to go. With the dismissal of Chernomyrdin, NDR lost its appeal as electoral branch of the party of power and eventually withered away.

After the 1995 State Duma elections, the Russian Federation’s political centre, the Kremlin, continued to experience difficulties in establishing its grip over the vast and diverse country. Meanwhile, the leaders of the 89 ‘subjects’ became more dominant players. Before December 1995, many of them owed their position to the president, which assured the Kremlin of their loyalty. Thereafter, all the regional executives had become elected, rather than appointed, leaders. This independence was reflected, inter alia, in the regional leaders’ autonomous—and diverging—stance at home and in the Federation Council (the second chamber). Russia’s regions were to become an important focal point for party construction (partstroitel’stvo in Russian).

By the time it had become clear that Yeltsin would not try to obtain a third term as president, Moscow’s mayor, Yurii Luzhkov, started preparing his succession bid. At the end of 1998, he launched his own party, Fatherland (Otechestvo). This patriotic label was to serve in the December 1999 State Duma elections, and, more importantly, the RF presidential elections scheduled for June-July 2000. At the outset Fatherland seemed to have at least a fighting chance of becoming NDR’s successor as the electoral branch of the party of power. As the unchallenged leader—the ‘boss’—of Moscow, one of the most influential and prosperous of Russia’s regions, Luzhkov could dispose of a power base that was close to Russia’s centre, yet autonomous. On the other hand, since Moscow is both central and exceptional (rich, privileged in many ways, international but self-centred, admired, envied, but not generally loved), Luzhkov would have had to work exceptionally hard to gain acceptance in many parts of the country.

At the same time, in the absence of an electoral organization of the federal party of power, other subjects’ leaders—most prominent among them were Tatarstan’s president, Minitimer Shaimiev, and St. Petersburg’s governor, Vladimir Yakovlev—also set out to prepare themselves for future federal elections by organizing All Russia (Vsya Rossiya).

Both Fatherland and All Russia set out to rally the support of Russia’s other regional leaders. Eventually they teamed up in the tandem Fatherland-All Russia (Otechestvo-Vsya Rossiya: OVR). Luzhkov never declared his candidacy, but no one doubted his ambition in this direction. Later, he made it clear that Yevgenii Primakov was the only candidate he would stand aside for and would support. Primakov scored very well in polls as the most trusted and respected federal politician during his short tenure as prime minister. As long as he headed the government, Primakov maintained his posture as a non-party politician, being first and foremost a statesman. After his dismissal as prime minister, Primakov teamed up with the OVR alliance but did not subordinate himself to it. Primakov and his ‘support group’ seemed to be in an ideal position, first to win a substantial number of seats in the December 1999 State Duma elections, and then to gear up for the RF presidential elections; there was substantial party political support for the ‘stately figure’ of Primakov.

However, OVR’s claim to represent the party of power did not remain unchallenged. Yeltsin and his entourage apparently felt uncomfortable about the efforts at party building by Luzhkov and his colleagues. In September 1999, with only a few months to go until the Duma ballot, a new bloc was launched. This bloc, Unity (Yedinstvo), was intended to neutralize OVR, beating it by employing the same weapons. Unity attempted to organize regional executive leaders—those who had not joined OVR—and also to convert those who had pledged allegiance to Luzhkov. But unlike OVR, the new bloc had a leader who was associated with the central government, the then relatively unknown minister for emergencies, Sergei Shoigu.

The foundations for Unity were laid in the Federation Council. In September 1999, a group of 39 senators signed a joint declaration in which they expressed their concern with the ‘political hysteria’, ‘demagoguery’ and ‘dirty games’ that surrounded the Duma election campaign. The senators offered to counterbalance this by using their ‘power, experience and authority’ to ensure that the next parliament would be filled with ‘honest and responsible deputies’. Unity’s programme, in fact, was hardly more than a declaration of support for the incumbent government, led by Vladimir Putin. The prime minister remained aloof from party politics, but he did declare that he personally preferred Unity above all other parties. The new SPS, in which a number of famous (or infamous) market-liberals co-operated (Boris Nemtsov, Anatolii Chubais, Yegor Gaidar, Irina Khakamada), circled around Unity and Putin in order to collect votes so as to ‘help Putin keep a market-liberal course’. It was a true satellite party, serving the needs of the expected president-elect. The social-liberal Yabloko party declined invitations to join SPS.

The December 1999 State Duma elections were an enormous success for Unity: it won 106 seats. The KPRF maintained its position as the largest faction, with 113 seats—an impressive number, but the communists were virtually isolated in the Duma. SPS collected 29 seats and Yabloko 20 in total, and half the single member districts went to independents, quite a number of whom would later opt for Unity. Even before the elections results were officially declared, Shaimiev, one of the leaders of OVR, which had secured only 67 seats, made it known that, as far as he was concerned, it was not at all clear that OVR and Unity should form a joint faction in the State Duma. He was already disengaging from Luzhkov and Primakov, and making overtures to Unity (and to Putin), in an obvious move to side with the winner. Primakov immediately understood that he was heading for an uphill fight.

Luzhkov and Yakovlev reconsidered their position. In the new Duma, Unity and OVR joined forces, creating a comfortable majority for the party of power in the legislative branch of government. This was noticeable, too, in the ease with which government proposals met their first and subsequent readings in parliament, as well as in the drop in number of bills originating in parliament itself: by far the majority of bills now originated in the executive branch. During this whole period, Putin’s popularity ratings remained enormously high: close to 70 per cent.

The resulting merged organization, United Russia (Yedinaya Rossiya: UR), was the designated winner of the December 2003 State Duma ballot. It took half of the seats in the elections, and grew to no less than two-thirds of the Duma seats in the ensuing weeks and months, as the bandwagon effect continued after the elections. Independents sided with UR, and a number of those who had held party-list seats also changed their allegiance. For the first time, the party of power could truly claim success. The KPRF’s strength was halved; Zhirinovskii’s LDPR resurged (he had been cautious not to attack Putin); SPS passed the five per cent threshold, whereas Yabloko did not and disappeared from the Duma.

The March 2004 presidential election result was a foregone conclusion: the incumbent was not even seriously contested, and parties other than the party of power played a marginal role—indeed, a less than marginal role if such a thing is possible: the other electoral parties’ leaders (and former presidential candidates), were practically invisible. Irina Khakamada campaigned, but not as the SPS’s candidate and without its formal support; the LDPR and the KPRF had preferred to send in some third-rate politicians to take a beating, to save the faces of Zhirinovskii and Zyuganov. Putin did not campaign; he acted presidentially, not lowering himself to ‘politics of a lesser kind’.

Personal Politics: Linking Parties and State

President Putin at present explicitly aims to strengthen the role of political parties as institutions linking ‘state’ and ‘society’. Whether this will translate into a stronger role for parties in the area of political recruitment remains to be seen. Given Putin’s track record (and that of his predecessor, Yeltsin), we do not expect a radical departure from the past. Using parties’ mobilization and legitimation capacity is one thing; indebting oneself to one or several specific organizations and entrusting them with strategic administrative positions is quite another. Personal loyalties, rather than institutionalized relationships, sometimes seem to be the key to Russian politics. In this respect, the abolition of Soviet rule has not meant a departure from past practice. The former CPSU General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev led a Seilschaft (that is, he was the chief patron) of colleagues, friends and people he found otherwise useful, whom he had met in different functions, in different places, and took along with him up the career ladder—and they, in turn, supported him during his climb. As general secretary he was close to and surrounded by, among others, people he had met in Dnepropetrovsk, his place of origin, and Moldova in the early 1950s. Yeltsin, as president of the RF, was aided by many people whom he already had come to know in Sverdlovsk, where he had been a party secretary (and by many other former CPSU functionaries), and by some whom he had met later. This group included notably Aleksandr Korzhakov, his bodyguard who held the rank of major when Yeltsin was the main party functionary of Moscow, and who made a career along with Yeltsin when Yeltsin became president, finally reaching the rank of three-star general—and was then ‘let go’.

Actual and aspiring political heavyweights must also know when to ‘let go’, and no longer be bothered by old sympathies and loyalties. Putin brought many people to the fore, and helped to promote them—or himself directly promoted them—to the highest state and party functions. These were often individuals whom he had previously known in Leningrad, his city of origin, where he had been deputy mayor under Anatolii Sobchak, before being called to serve in Yeltsin’s presidential administration; they also included former colleagues from the KGB (and its successor, the FSB); more specifically, he promoted KGB functionaries with a Leningrad (St. Petersburg) background.

However, loyalty is rarely its own reward: it often expects to be rewarded. Making all kinds of material and non-material desirables available is a way of inducing and maintaining loyalty. Loyalty is a ‘personal’ and ‘non-material thing’, but its concomitant expressions are less often non-material. In a political system that is highly personalistic, such as that of Russia, material rewards given irrespective of formal bureaucratic rules and distributed even in flagrant breach of the law are to be expected. Rewards may well take the form of bureaucratic (administrative) rank; and indeed, under Putin probably even more so than under Yeltsin, patronage has taken on an administrative, bureaucratic guise.

Incumbents, then, when unhampered by the ‘higher echelon’, have a major advantage in the electoral process. The party of power has a major advantage here, and for this reason a strenuous policy aimed at limiting party spending is not to be expected. It is hard to win political office, and especially hard to acquire elected executive office, as an outsider. Politics in Russia to a very large extent is ‘insider dealing’. Russia is not a multi-party democracy, although it has (the tough criteria of the law on political parties notwithstanding) a plethora of political parties; the number of parties with representation in the State Duma has been reduced, and the single faction of UR absolutely dominates the party-political scene. Some of the criteria contained in the law on political parties may in future also reduce the number of registered parties.

It is not merely the number of parties that determines whether or not the concept of ‘multi-party democracy’ or ‘multi-party system’ applies. In a ‘true’ multi-party system political parties select and train their candidates for elected public office. In a multi-party-system it is, as a rule, parties that bring forward candidates for state leadership, and for the offices of prime minister or president, or both. And as a rule parties have a longer life-span than the people who lead them and are selected by the party for public office. Parties are, in short, real institutions. Whereas in multi-party systems access to the highest echelons of state power is provided via political parties, in Russia access to the highest echelons of state power is achieved by being co-opted by those who hold superior rank in the state apparatus, possibly, but not necessarily, after a period of ‘outplacement’ in a party-position—be it de facto or symbolic—perhaps coupled with membership of the legislative branch of government via the party of power. Many of the top candidates presented by subsequent parties of power in State Duma elections never occupied their seats in the legislature. And notwithstanding the tighter criteria of the law on political parties, the rules for the next Duma elections still allow parties to fill half of their candidate lists with non-members. It is the government, or rather the administration—the ‘true’ party of power, with its domain first of all in the executive branch—that ‘defines’ the ‘ruling party’, and not the other way round.

At the provincial level, that of the subjects of the RF (provinces, republics, city of Moscow and so forth), in many instances the same applies, but not always. In some cases one party, or rather one political cum business grouping, always centred upon the executive head, has been (or still is) more dominant in its province than the president of the RF has ever been in the country as a whole. Simply put, one individual, with his family and political and business clientele, is ‘boss’ there. In some instances there is no real ‘parallel’ between the federal and the provincial level, because what happens at the provincial level is first of all an extension of federal politics, in which case the subjects are the ‘working ground’ and the ‘extension’ of federal politics. It is to be expected that, as a result of Putin’s policy of subordinating provincial executives to the head of the federal executive—that is to himself, as president of the RF—the number of provinces in this category will grow.

In Russia the electoral branches of the party of power have been created and discarded as has been deemed fit, with an eye to the enduring interests of the ‘real party of power’, or with an eye to the changing composition—the change of personnel—of the ‘real party of power’.


Political parties are by no means fully autonomous actors, let alone key players, in Russia’s political system. As we have seen, their potential for capturing the state is fairly limited. The power-holders, on the other hand, have plenty of possibilities for curtailing, manipulating and creating parties. The existing party and political system has served the party of power so far. It is not a multi-party system, but there is definitely a system discernible, with rather specific characteristics that will become lasting traits if they are not tampered with too much.

So why try to change it, as seems to be the purpose of the law on political parties and the move away from the plurality vote? And why change it at a time where the party of power has finally proved capable of dominating the ballot? The SMD have provided many recruits for the UR faction since the 2003 elections. Perhaps the party of power hopes and intends to enlist this support prior to the elections, making sure that its electoral branch will dominate the Duma. If so, the new proportional electoral system seeks to express a further phase in the quest for control of ‘opportunistic’ politicians by the party of power, and expresses the desire to provide a surer guide or a more secure lead to the electorate to help it choose to support the backers in the Duma of the future leader of the state. It is much harder to image that the desire may also have been to provide a surer route to a genuine and steadfast opposition as well.

If the intended effect of the law on political parties has indeed been to make entry into the political sphere as a political party and the upkeep of a small political party more difficult or even impossible, is this to the benefit of the party of power? The party of power has so far made full use of disposable electoral parties, so why would it choose to create a more durable state-party? The answer may well be that the law does not seriously limit its options. It is still fairly easy for the party of power to organize a party that meets the criteria regarding number of provincial branches, numbers of members and so on, and to arrange its financing. It may become more difficult for ‘real outsiders’ to enter the field. If the ‘old’ electoral organization of the party of power is judged to have lost its appeal, or changes of personnel in the party of power seem to require fresh expression in a new electoral party, the old one can still be easily discarded, and a new one—or several new ones—activated with relative ease, as it still has all the administrative resources at its disposal.

Possibly more disquieting, for those who have the prospect of ‘real democracy’ at heart, is that a ‘lining up’ of the executive branch of power is taking place: all heads of the executive of the federation’s subjects will in future be appointed by the president of Russia, and in fact quite a number since 2005 have already been appointed by him. They will no longer be directly elected and so they will behave more like members of the presidential administration, their career prospects depending upon subordination, and so they will be much less inclined to set up or help sponsor electoral organizations of local parties of power if these organizations are considered—by administrative superiors—to be insufficiently helpful to the greater cause of the ‘overall’ party of power. In Russia the state (the administration) produces the most important party political leaders.

The state, however, has so far been less of a unity than the singular noun ‘state’ suggests. The state has been, and to a large extent still is, a territorial and functional plurality. The state, therefore, has tended to reproduce plurality, and a certain level of competition, in the political sphere. The continuing subordination of the constituent elements of the RF, plus the dominance of a limited number of power ministries and services in the administration—dominance that ‘flows over’, as it were, into the political sphere—may well have a greater effect on state-party relations than either the introduction of a law on political parties or the abolition of single-member districts. If there is logic to our reasoning, the prospects for the development of a true multi-party system, with less politics of patronage, seem altogether bleak.