United Liberal Democratic Russia?

By most accounts, United Russia is finished.

I suppose that’s not surprising, given that it was never really expected to last even this long. Cobbled together in 2001 through the merger of the Unity and Fatherland All Russia Parties — which themselves had been cobbled together by various Kremlin factions only a few years earlier — United Russia won its first Duma elections in 2003. Prior to 2007, no other ‘Party of Power’ in Russia had survived to contest two consecutive Duma elections. It has been the dominant force in Russian politics ever since, enjoying the unfaltering support of the Kremlin.

But not any more. While Putin’s own ratings have barely been touched by five years of economic hardship, the same cannot be said for United Russia. Widely seen as the ‘Party of Swindlers and Thieves‘ — a monicker promoted by opposition leader Alexei Navalny — United Russia has scraped by on a combination of electoral manipulation and ‘administrative resource’. But the final indignity came in yesterday’s regional elections, as Kremlin-backed candidates throughout the country were forced to run as independents, to avoid the stench emanating from the ostensibly ruling party. And even that didn’t help very much.

Which brings me to this:

To translate: Vladimir Zhirinovsky — Russia’s nationalist clown-in-chief, whose spectacularly misnamed Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) has been in slow decline ever since storming into the Duma in 1993 — is accusing Navalny of forming a coalition with the Communists and the center-left opposition party Yabloko to foment a Ukrainian-style revolution in Russia. What he’s referring to is the “Smart Voting” strategy developed by Navalny and other opposition leaders after authorities barred most genuine opposition candidates from contesting the elections. The idea, in a nutshell, was for opposition-minded voters to support anyone other than the Kremlin’s candidate, and to a certain extent it worked. To wit, the Kremlin’s majority in the Moscow city council (which is more important than it seems) is the smallest it has been in the Putin era.

As Navalny points out, “Smart Voting” played a role in the LDPR’s successes in the Far East as well (though probably not a decisive role, given the party’s historical popularity in that region). Indeed, well before the vote it appeared that United Russia had all but ceded the economically and strategically important Kabarovsk region to LDPR. It would not have done so, however, without some sort of quid pro quo.

So, here’s a thought: If the Kremlin can’t rely on United Russia anymore, might it rebase itself on the LDPR?

The Kremlin has historically kept its options open when it comes to political parties. United Russia was kept alive for as long as it was useful (and it’s not quite dead yet), but even so, the Kremlin remained skeptical. Thus, Putin never joined the party, even when he was nominally head of it (from 2008-12). Nor does the Kremlin allow United Russia to use Putin’s name and image in its campaign materials; Putin doesn’t want the party’s rot to rub off on him, either.

But the Kremlin cannot afford to be without some sort of a party. Alas, earlier attempts to create systemic alternatives — such as the ostensibly center-left ‘Just Russia’ party, or various tries at an allegedly liberal party, whether led by Mikhail Prokhorov or Ksenia Sobchak or Boris Titov — have been generally laughed off by voters. And with 2024 looming, and with it the question of succession, there is precious little time left for experimentation.

In such circumstances, the Kremlin may be tempted to go with a proven brand. For all its faults, the LDPR has a consistent (if vapid) national-populist message that is not miles away from the Kremlin’s own campaigns of recent years, as well as a robust campaign and coordination infrastructure. The party has also been unfailingly loyal to Putin, even when Zhirinovsky has campaigned against him in presidential elections. In other words, the Kremlin could do worse.

None of which is to say, of course, that a United Russia-LDPR merger is necessarily in the cards. There are significant vested interests in United Russia that will not take kindly to sharing power and wealth, and Putin can ill afford to alienate them right now. A coalition might be more palatable, even if it would make the hierarchy of power more complex.

What is certain, though, is that Putin is in the market for a new strategy, and Zhirinovsky may just have something to sell.

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