Putin and the Rise of the Neo-Soviet State

Victor Davidoff, writing in the Moscow Times:

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s May 6 speech in Volgograd finally put an end to the questions that have been asked for the last three years: Who is ruling Russia, and who will rule Russia after 2012?

It was a canonical speech by a national leader who is both trying to help the party he heads, United Russia, in December’s State Duma elections and who is priming himself for the presidential race in 2012. The speech painted a rosy picture of Russia today and an even brighter picture of the future if, of course, the country maintains “stability,” which when translated from post-Soviet newspeak means “the status quo of United Russia and the siloviki in power for many years.”

Befitting a former chekist, Putin’s speech requires a certain amount of deciphering, particularly when he proposed creating something he called the “All-Russia People’s Front.” According to Putin’s vision, the United Russia party would become an electoral umbrella for nonpolitical organizations such as trade unions, women’s and youth organizations and veterans’ groups. Members of these groups could receive up to one-fourth of the spots on United Russia’s list of candidates to the Duma.

For those not familiar with the subtleties of Russian politics, this might seem like something from the theater of the absurd: The leader of a party — who isn’t a member of that party — proposes nominating people who also have no relationship to the party into the Duma on the party ticket. But in Russia, everything that seems to be politically absurd is, in fact, quite rational.

Putin’s proposal is primarily crisis management of his United Russia project. As journalist Oleg Kozyrev wrote on his blog: “The reason for creating the All-Russia People’s Front … is the falling popularity of United Russia, which is almost universally called the ‘party of crooks and thieves.’ This meme has become so widespread you don’t even have to mention the party’s name. Just say ‘crooks and thieves’ and everyone knows what you are talking about.” Political scientist Alexander Morozov added, “The nomenklatura also knows that Putin doesn’t want to head a party list of crooks and thieves. This will be a ‘new list’ of sorts — a sleight of hand to deceive the voters in December.”

Putin has taken a page right out of the Soviet political handbook. Although there was a strict one-party system during the Soviet period, on paper there was also a mythical bloc of “Communists and independents” who always seemed to win 100 percent of the seats in the legislature. Or perhaps East Germany was Putin’s model. Odd as it sounds, there was always a “multiparty system,” although the parties played the roles scripted for them by German and Soviet communists.

Political scientist Alexander Kynev wrote: “These politicians don’t have any source of inspiration other than the Soviet period. Their inability to respond to a different public mood and changes in the country and world is combined with their refusal to give up the ‘sovereign democracy’ that brought the country to a dead end.”

Journalist Alexander Petrochenkov is even more pessimistic about the future: “It looks like the end of political competition in Russia. It wasn’t enough to have the dominant one-party United Russia system. Now there will be the totalitarian silence of the cemetery.”

Putin’s proposal only makes sense if the presidential candidate from the All-Russia People’s Front is Putin himself. After all, as the founder of the front and presumably an “independent,” he is the ideal candidate. During the Volgograd speech, Putin made an intentional linguistic slip that was understood by his audience. As the blogger El-murid wrote: “One of his key phrases was a sentence tossed out seemingly by chance: ‘Where else could the creation of the people’s front be announced but in Stalingrad?’” (The city’s name was changed to Volgograd in 1961 as part of Nikita Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization campaign.)

“Putin was given a standing ovation. It looks like Putin is ready to run for president without complicated schemes and justifications. Putin’s reference to Stalingrad sent a strong signal: Putin has decided to run on an anti-liberal and patriotic platform,” El-murid wrote.

Now a new question emerges: Is there anyone in Russia — including President Dmitry Medvedev — who will dare to challenge Putin and his people’s front?

An editorial in the Moscow Times:

By announcing the formation of the All-Russia People’s Front on Friday, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reaffirmed himself as the country’s ultimate power broker. He effectively squashed hopes that President Dmitry Medvedev would emerge from under his patronage as an independent political leader.

Putin clearly comes out the winner, while everyone else loses.

The immediate members of the All-Russia People’s Front will include the elite and many interest groups — including business associations, trade unions, Afghan war veterans and pensioners’ and women’s pressure groups. They won’t be able to ignore Putin’s invitation to join and risk being left out in the cold. Once they become part of the front, they will no longer be able to criticize Putin’s policies or present alternative visions of what they believe is good for Russia.

United Russia will end up on the losing end. Until recently, the party has positioned itself as the ultimate embodiment of Putin’s will in politics. Now, United Russia’s once-predominant role will be heavily diluted among other factions in the front. Boris Gryzlov, chairman of United Russia’s Supreme Council, said over the weekend that the party was ready to fill a quarter of its ticket in December’s State Duma elections with nonmembers from the front.

President Dmitry Medvedev also gets the short end of the stick from Putin’s initiative, as do his supporters, who believe that Medvedev offers the only hope within the ruling tandem of initiating much-needed political and economic reforms.

During his scheduled news conference on May 18, Medvedev will certainly be asked what he thinks about Putin’s front, and he will surely answer that it is a great idea. By admitting this, Medvedev will deliver his own head on a plate into Putin’s hands.

It would be convenient for Putin to retain Medvedev as president for a second term. This would keep continuity and “stability” in the Kremlin leadership and help justify Putin’s decision to anoint Medvedev in the first place four years ago.

But even those in the Russian elite who believed that Medvedev was the best hope to modernize the country in 2008 would have to concede this time that Medvedev is nothing more than Putin’s puppet.

The other big losers from Putin’s front are the Russian people. A nationwide coalition uniting most of the Russian political class with the sole purpose to please the power ambitions of a single person deals a huge blow to the political development of the country.

No one should be deluded by Putin’s demagoguery that the front is being created to have a better discussion of the challenges that the country faces. Seven years ago, after the Beslan tragedy, Putin created an institution with exactly the same mandate, the Public Chamber. Since then, the chamber has served little more than a decorative function.

There is no reason to hope that the front will make up for the Public Chamber’s failure. After all, United Russia, which has muscled legislation into law by sidelining discussion, not encouraging it, aspires to be the foundation for the new group. And Gryzlov himself once said the Duma is not a place for discussion.

Putin has not identified any threat that would require a massive consolidation of forces under his tutelage as required by his new front. He also has remained silent about public polls in recent months that have shown the lowest ratings for him, Medvedev and United Russia in two years — support that continues to decline. This is bad news for a national leader just seven months before Duma elections and less than a year away from the presidential vote.

The All-Russia People’s Front is a disturbing throwback to the Soviet era when all public and professional groups were forced to ally with the Communist Party to serve the ruling elite. In the end, 20 years of difficult institution building in post-Soviet Russia might be wasted for the sole purpose of allowing Putin to remain the country’s kingmaker for as long as possible.

One response to “Putin and the Rise of the Neo-Soviet State

  1. Ex-con says was forced to cut tycoon Khodorkovsky

    Today at 18:49 | Associated Press

    MOSCOW (AP) — Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s former cellmate has told a Russian online publication that authorities forced him to attack the jailed tycoon and falsify a sexual harassment suit.

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