Former opposition Duma deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov, writing in the Moscow Times:
No matter what new party we create, in the end, it always turns out to be the Communist Party of the Soviet Union!”
This was Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin’s famous phrase that he coined in the mid-1990s to describe the hordes of bootlickers and careerists who rushed to join the Our Home is Russia party. Chernomyrdin, in his trademark style, hit the nail right on the head. It is difficult to shake off a feeling of deja vu after seeing how delegates to United Russia’s ninth annual congress on Monday and Tuesday obediently applauded and stood at attention to the music of the perennial Soviet-cum-Russian national anthem.
Russia’s all-powerful bureaucracy has been following this rich political tradition ever since Peter the Great — that is, creating a ruling caste or dominant party that quashes out all opposition to gain complete and unchallenged control over the country’s enormously valuable resource wealth.
At United Russia’s congress, the only things that differed from Soviet times were the venue, which was clearly designed to copy that of a U.S. political party convention, and the person on the tribune — President Vladimir Putin in place of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
The parallels between Putin and Brezhnev are not only a matter of style. The basic characteristics of their respective regimes are similar as well. Both now and then, the much-vaunted “stability” depends completely on high oil and gas prices. In addition, both leaders built a power vertical that was ruled by a bloated bureaucracy and omnipresent security infrastructure. In both cases, political competition was suppressed and censorship was pervasive throughout the major media.
For the elite to be able to appropriate the country’s profits from natural resources exports, it was necessary to stifle the opposition and create a one-party system. Any discussion of corruption and abuse of power had to be limited to only a few radio stations and small-circulation newspapers. Moreover, the authorities needed to manipulate elections so that incumbent leaders received the maximum possible voter support — and thus legitimacy — in the eyes of the people.
This same goal is behind the drive to make United Russia the dominant political party. Its recent announcement that party membership had hit the 2 million mark served two purposes. First, it creates the illusion of popular support for the ruling regime. Second, it provides a means of controlling that segment of the population, which consists primarily of state employees and workers at small and medium-sized businesses who were pressured into joining the party.
In countries that are both dependent on oil and gas exports and have weak democratic traditions and institutions, a rise in global energy prices inevitably leads to increased authoritarianism. This clearly is the case with Russia.
Before our eyes, Putin is trying to concentrate the maximum possible authority and resources in his hands. When he steps down as president on May 8 and becomes prime minister, he will have full political control over both the State Duma and Federation Council as a result of United Russia’s constitutional majority in both chambers. He will also have control over regional governors, the overwhelming majority of whom are United Russia members.
In addition, Putin, as prime minister, will make every attempt to preserve control over state-owned television stations, law enforcement structures and the Central Elections Commission. And Putin’s close associates will most likely remain as the heads of major state-controlled companies such as Gazprom, Rosneft, Russian Railways, Russian Technologies, Sberbank and so on. Despite the enormous authority formally granted to Medvedev by the Constitution, the president-elect will have relatively little political leverage and few people on whom he can solidly rely.
It is a mistake to compare Medvedev to Putin at the outset of his presidency. At the end of 1999, President Boris Yeltsin was so weak and ill that he had only strength enough to hand authority over to Putin before fading into obscurity. By contrast, a robust and energetic Putin is now taking over the reins of government, openly declaring his desire to take an active role in domestic politics and foreign policy, while at the same time concentrating vast authority and resources in his own hands and in those of his friends. Putin will remain a permanent member of the Security Council, and the control he will exercise over the Duma and Federation Council through his new role as United Russia’s party chairman will provide him with a mechanism for introducing changes to any existing laws and to play a role in the appointment of judges and prosecutors. In theory, he could also initiate impeachment proceedings against Medvedev, if necessary.
Putin’s early return to the Kremlin cannot be ruled out either. His right-hand man in United Russia, Boris Gryzlov, has suggested that Putin consider pushing presidential and Duma elections forward by two years. The Federation Council has the constitutional authority to call for early elections.
Starting May 8, the Russian political system will undergo a significant transformation. It will remain just as authoritarian as before, but now Putin and Medvedev will work in tandem as the country’s leaders. Formally, President Medvedev will have higher status, but Prime Minister Putin will hold far more power and authority.
After being named as the chairman of United Russia, everything is firmly in place for Putin’s transfer of power to himself as prime minister. Now, he can sit back, relax and visit his good friend and fellow prime minister to be Silvio Berlusconi at his luxurious villa in Sardinia as scheduled on Thursday and Friday.