How do you win a Russian election? First, invent a coalition.
At around 7 p.m. on Friday night, I called Robert Shlegel, the young techie who sits in Russia’s parliament as a representative of the ruling United Russia party. The week was sandwiched between two three-day weekends (May Day and Victory Day), and many Muscovites never bothered to come back from the first one. The city was empty, and emptying more every minute. Which is why my call found Shlegel in a loud Moscow cafe.
“Hi,” I said, when he answered casually, “so what do you think about this people’s front idea?”
An hour earlier, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, speaking at a United Russia conference in Volgograd (the former Stalingrad), announced his plan for the December 2011 parliamentary elections: a people’s front. The front would include, of course, United Russia, Putin said, as well as “some other political parties, labor groups, women’s groups, youth groups, veterans’ [groups], including veterans of World War II and the [Soviet Union’s] war in Afghanistan.”
“About what?” Schlegel said over the background noise.
“A people’s front. Putin is forming a people’s front.”
“What is that?”
I read Shlegel the description. He laughed. Shlegel was also surprised, as was I, that it had been announced at 6 p.m. on a holiday weekend.
“They did that on purpose,” he said, then quickly corrected himself: “I mean, I think it’s very necessary. They need to somehow unify the people who are politically active.” Then he asked to have a couple minutes to read the news, and asked me to please write something nice.
Most people will not hear about this till deep into next week — which is exactly the point, because the plan is ridiculous. Let’s start with the fact that none of the groups that Putin rattled off in his speech actually exist; in fact, he and his deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov made sure to neuter them all. If they’ve managed to survive independently, then we certainly won’t see them as part of the people’s front. More likely, new ones will magically appear this summer and fall, falling in line with the so-called people’s front, which sounds far too much like The Life of Brian.
All kidding aside — and it’s hard with this one — the move is a clear response to United Russia’s dipping poll numbers and rather dismal results in the March regional elections. (In Kirov, they outright lost to the Communists, which also happened the year before in Irkutsk — and this with United Russia’s total media dominance.)
The point, though, seems not to be about poll numbers. United Russia would still win, and the desirable margin can be “drawn in,” as the Russians say. The point is legitimacy, assuring a population increasingly fed up with United Russia that Putin is listening to them, that he wants to include them — provided they’re “likeminded.”
“This happens every time there’s an election,” says political analyst Masha Lipman, who was just as bemused as Shlegel by the news, pointing out that national fronts are created in times of crisis and Russia has ostensibly had a party system and constitution for 20 years. “Every time, they invent a new trick for holding it together. It just underscores the ad hoc nature of Russian politics,” she said.
These tricks, let’s recall, are always rather silly. In 2007, United Russia started to sag at the corners, so the monstrously popular Putin put his name on the ballot as United Russia’s front-runner — without actually running or even joining the party. The bait-and-switch, here-take-some-of-my-mojo maneuver worked: United Russia roared into the Duma with over 64 percent of the vote, and the last vestiges of the democratic opposition were definitively locked out of Parliament. In 2008, Putin gave the party another boost, agreeing to head the party, but not joining it, an act that implies a sort of distaste for the thing. In fact, some of his utterances about the party have been less than flattering. The party, he said then, needed to “become more open for discussion and must be de-bureaucratized completely.” He also added that the party should be purged of “casual people pursuing exclusively their own material gains.”
That hasn’t worked out too well: It took blogger and political activist Alexey Navalny no time or effort to create a powerful, catchy meme — “United Russia, Party of Crooks and Thieves.”
When he agreed to head the party, Putin said he was forming an alliance of “likeminded” individuals linked by their “love of Russia,” rhetoric that sounds much like today’s. He was concerned, he said, about “the spiritual unity of the people,” a trope that in Russian politics means: We’ll take care of it. This meant the same thing in Soviet times, when everyone was also dragged out to vote for a pre-determined candidate. How did they get numbers in the high ’90s when there were only a few million Communist Party members? They formed a people’s front of Party members and non-Party members alike. Back then, it was called the Bloc of Communists and Those Without a Party. According to a 1967 book called 50 Years of October: the Triumph of Marxism-Leninsm, the concept “expresses the inviolability of the moral and political unity of Soviet society.” In practice it meant, you all have to vote anyway.
Back then, however, there was an ideological underpinning, however frayed, to explain why we trust the Communist Party: “The experience of many years of struggle, the experience of the three Russian revolutions and communist construction workers convinced that the Communists have no other interests except the interests of the people.” The current ruling party has branched out, developing interests other than the interests of the people. These include, but are not limited to, real estate, business, and cars. And the attempt to gather votes with this Popular People’s Front is like going fishing with a grenade.