This April, the Russian Duma passed a bill legislating new procedures for party registration. So far, over 150 new parties have submitted their applications to the Ministry of Justice. Although this may appear as a sign of political liberalization, some analysts warn that the power structure in Russia will not change radically in the near future.
The list of more than 150 parties that applied for registration at the Ministry of Justice is peppered with humorous party names, including Subtropical Russia, No Name Party, Against All Party (of which there are not one but three), the Pirate Party, the Party of Love, the Good People of Russia Party, Russia Without Obscurantism, the Party of Beer Lovers, the Creative Class Party, and many more. The ideological spectrum they cover is also wide: they are monarchists, libertarians, republicans, Christian democrats, national democrats, and everything in between. In other words, the list has something for everyone.
While the Ministry of Justice is reviewing the applications (it might have to reject a large number of them on technicalities), today, there are only nine parties officially functioning in the political arena. These are United Russia, Communist Party of the Russian Federation, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, A Just Russia, Right Cause, Patriots of Russia, Yabloko (Apple), the Democratic Party of Russia, which, according to the new rules, was allowed to register on April 28, 2012, and finally the most recent addition, the Republican Party of Russia or RPR, registered on May 5, 2012.
RPR was founded in 1990 after it split off from the democratic platform of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. From 2006 to 2010, the RPR was a part of the opposition coalition The Other Russia, then it joined the Peoples' Freedom Party "For Russia Without Lawlessness and Corruption" (PARNAS). In 2007, the Russian Supreme Court withdrew the RPR’s registration under the pretext of the party's alleged lack of compliance with the law “On political parties”. The RPR responded by filing a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg, which eventually resolved that the Party’s case was rife with violations, and in January, 2012, the Russian Court’s decision on the RPR's liquidation was reversed.
The reinstatement of the RPR opens the door for two other parties from PARNAS: the Russian People's Democratic Union and Solidarnost' Movement (Russian for "solidarity"). As Mikhail Kasyanov, former Prime Minister and co-founder of PARNAS told Kommersant FM, the People's Freedom Party plans to register on the basis of the RPR, while the latter, in that case, would be renamed. "We haven't come to this decision yet, the lawyers still need to discuss all the details and legal procedures. We will hold a party congress in June […] in order to make all the required decisions in time for this autumn's regional elections,” he said.
Kasyanov also pointed out that the new bill on party registration does not entail any real new opportunities for political parties. "There's no new law. There's an old law with all of its flaws, which is being used against the opposition. There's only one [positive] element to the reform: the required number of party members to legitimize a party has been decreased. But for us, this number was never a problem as we have 46 thousand members."
Meanwhile, the ruling party, United Russia (UR) is gradually recovering from the tremendous failure it suffered during and in the aftermath of the parliamentary elections of 2011. On May 22nd, the newly-appointed Prime Minister and former President Dmitry Medvedev officially joined UR. Still, as Mikhail Vinogradov, political analyst and member of UR's Council for Political Technologies, told Vlast magazine, it is not yet clear whether the party will be a resource or burden for Medvedev. "On the one hand, it's a real network. On the other hand, given the growing public irritation with UR, there will be the great temptation to disavow the party in the upcoming elections.”
Ever since Alexey Navalny branded United Russia as "the party of crooks and thieves," the Kremlin began considering the options for this party going forward. These included rebranding, a split, a merger with the All-Russian People's Front, and shutting down altogether. But, as Igor Mintusov, head of the Niccolo M political consulting firm noted on Gazeta.Ru, Medvedev's joining UR confirms that the party will actively continue its work.
Public opinion on United Russia remains divided. According to the recent poll by the Public Opinion Foundation, United Russia's rating has risen 11% — from 35% in December 2011, to 40% in May 2012. At the same time, according to Levada Center data, 38% of Russians continue to believe that United Russia is the "party of crooks and thieves."
Nonetheless, it is evident that Russian authorities are not ready to get rid of United Russia, although they are making plans for organizational change and personnel turnover. For starters, there will be changes in the party management board: former governors will make way for the new appointees. The Duma’s new Speaker, Sergey Naryshkin is expected to take one of the leading positions in the party. Last December, he was granted a deputy's mandate, but he has yet to receive his UR party membership card. The fates of Boris Gryzlov, former Duma Speaker and Chairman of the United Russia Supreme Council, and Vladislav Surkov, the acting Deputy Prime Minister, are still up in the air. All of these issues should be resolved at the party congress on May 26.
Another curious news item appeared a day before former President Medvedev joined UR. Vasily Yakemenko, the founder and former leader of the pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi (now the acting Head of the Federal Agency for Youth Affairs), announced that he was going to create a new party, too. He calls it the Power Party and is planning to participate in the autumn elections on this platform.
Mr. Yakemenko explained that the new party would be oriented at the young members of the middle class since they have no representation in the current political parties. These people, as Yakemenko stated, will fight for the “Russia of the future” with beautiful cities and important advancements in many realms. The political structure of his party will be based on “crowdsourcing, developed on the Internet.” Yakemenko went as far as admitting that his party might be in opposition to the current regime. “I don’t believe that United Russia can win in 2016. If Medvedev or Putin are among those who add to the stagnation, I’m sure that Power Party will oppose them.”
What is the Russian people's opinion of the political renaissance in the air?
As Levada Center polls from April show, 43% of respondents believe that Russia needs only two or three large parties, 23% are confident that one strong party is enough, 12% said that there should be many small parties, while 6% replied that there is no need for parties at all (16% were undecided). These data illustrate that two-thirds of the Russian population are satisfied with the current situation, while only one-tenth are interested in political pluralism. And then comes another question: who needs all the parties that rushed to register after the new law was passed?
According to Levada Center Director Lev Gudkov, the public demand for party pluralism actually exists, “it’s large, but it’s not well-articulated.” “My impression is that the people want a real, Western-style party, created not from the top, like United Russia, but from among the population. They want party that could actually represent their interests, and would not be riddled with factions that fight with each other and only appeal to the public for support,” he told Vlast magazine. However, he did not believe that such a party could be successful in the near future, since he doesn’t currently see “any forces that could fulfill that role.”
Another reason for the lack of interest political parties per se, according to Gudkov, is the overall political passivity of the population, which he believes is intentionally promoted by the authorities. "60% [of Russians] say that conversations about politics bore them and that they wouldn't want to participate in political activities themselves. This is the prevailing mood, and authorities take advantage of it. The regime is based in there being a false sense of the lack of alternatives, so it is good for them that the population remains apathetic. Indeed, over 80% of Russian citizens think that they are unable to influence political decision-making,” Gudkov says.
He also recalled the Russia of the early 1990s, when more than 120 political parties and movements were created, but only a dozen or so of them actually made it onto ballots. In Gudkov's opinion, this is the maximum number of parties that could stay on the public's radar. His forecast for the number of new parties that could enter the political arena today is between 5 and 7. "It all depends on how active the newcomers will be, what platforms they present, and whether they have access to television or not," Gudkov explained. "While Internet presence is inarguably important, it's not sufficient on its own. The media, even independent media, is also not enough."
Estimating the significance of the political reforms, political columnist Georgy Bovt argued that they didn't have any real impact and are aimed at dispersing protesters' votes. "When the euphoria of this microscopic victory wore off, even the least savvy realized that due to the various filters, “direct” elections would be just as managed from above as “indirect” ones <…> The simplified registration procedure will make the winners [from the opposition] choke on their new freedom before having a chance to utter anything that could bring the new political parties back from their non-existence <…> Keeping the 5% vote threshold and other administrative obstacles, as well as having the opposition dispersed within the political arena, are effective strategies for creating the conditions that allow United Russia to win 30% of the vote and control more than a half of parliamentary seats on all levels.”
Andrei Ryabov, an analyst for the Moscow Carnegie Center, also wrote of the simulation of political reform in his op-ed Accept No Substitutes. According to Ryabov, in the current political climate, ghost parties, created to benefit the authorities (such as Dmitri Rogozin's Native Land), will not be effective. “As the public becomes more involved in politics, people will begin to look at false NGOs, unions, committees and other such organizations with a very critical eye. Being a talking head on TV will not be enough to convince them of sincerity <…> false political and social constructs are no longer in vogue. Being genuine is what’s in,” Ryabov concludes.