The Friendlier Face of Putinism
Meet the often overlooked organization trying to reconnect Russia’s leader with the people—and secure Putin’s influence for years to come.
In mid-November, Russian President Vladimir Putin convened an important virtual meeting with the State Duma to discuss the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. His meeting with the lower house of the Russian parliament was not unusual—it focused on how the country’s regions, which have largely been given autonomy to deal with the virus as they see fit, have been handling it. But something did stand out: the strong presence of an organization called the All-Russia People’s Front (ONF), which has been playing a key role in Russia’s management of the virus over the past few months. Most significantly, the meeting made clear that the ONF is establishing itself as a link between the incumbent United Russia party and the people—a relationship that may prove useful to Putin ahead of parliamentary elections this year and may influence the makeup of the ruling party in years to come.
The ONF, often overlooked, was formed in 2011 just ahead of one of Putin’s presidential bids. The body, which he officially leads, is designed to be a sort of think tank adjacent to United Russia, proffering new policy ideas and acting as a potential breeding ground for many of Russia’s up-and-coming younger policymakers. Although the ONF’s clout and political visibility appeared to have declined after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, despite its opening regional offices there to further cement Russia’s formal control over the territory, the ONF seems to have resurged in the past 18 months.
Firstly, individuals who have performed well at the organization, and who assisted with Putin’s presidential campaigns in 2012 and 2018, have been demonstrably rewarded with senior positions in the ONF, such as Elena Shmeleva. Shmeleva is the co-chair of the front’s central headquarters. In 2018, she managed Putin’s presidential election headquarters, after which she was promoted to her current post. Although there are more senior and experienced individuals who sit on the ONF’s board, many of the group’s most visible public-facing roles are taken up by younger (aged below 40) members.
Mikhail Kuznetsov, the leader of the ONF’s Executive Committee, is a case in point. Kuznetsov was appointed in September 2019, is a member of United Russia himself, and has worked in the Moscow and other regional administrations for years, giving him a solid understanding of politics and earning him a reputation as a good and capable manager. During the State Duma meeting, at which senior government members were present, Kuznetsov delivered a presentation in which he highlighted the main issues that different regions were experiencing in countering the virus, namely a shortage of drugs in local pharmacies, difficulties in contacting a doctor or an ambulance, and long wait times for patients at hospitals. Although the presentation was delivered neutrally, without any particular individual singled out for criticism, it was clear the ONF had been tasked with reporting back to the federal government on the regional governors’ ability to handle the public health issue in their administrative regions.
The ONF’s increasing visibility is an interesting development for several reasons. The front is not a party or an official decision-making body, but through its public engagement and activism, it seems to be positioning itself as a bridge between United Russia and Russian voters.
The ONF conducts public polls, which gauge people’s reactions to the government’s performance on countering the virus and are highly useful pieces of data that will be relevant for the State Duma elections this year. This information will allow the government to better understand the public mood and plan policies accordingly. The ONF has also proposed concrete recommendations to ameliorate some of the difficulties that coronavirus patients have outlined, such as hiring cars to get to local doctors. If enacted, such policies will likely be welcomed by the public as a sign of affirmative action.
The organization’s activities are not limited to monitoring the pandemic. In recent months, its representatives have taken a stance on climate change and environmental activism. This comes as the federal government’s own approach to climate change and the environment appears increasingly fragmented, contradictory, and dominated by a strong hydrocarbon lobby pushing for increases in oil and gas production. The ONF has been working with communities to improve access to fresh drinking water and protect historically important local sites such as lakes—all local issues that United Russia tends to overlook in favor of bigger-picture ideas, suggesting that the ONF is styling itself as an organization more in touch with people’s needs.
That role is not likely born out of a sense of grassroots activism—the orders are clearly coming from the top. As early as July 2020, Putin instructed the ONF to increase its control over the implementation of his national projects, a significant task that highlights the organization’s closeness to the president and value he accords it.
Putin’s national projects are a series of 13 broad policy areas earmarked for improvement, which he announced on his reelection in 2018. They’re the president’s pet projects, designed to be the cornerstone of Russia’s economic success in the coming years, and are seen as a matter of national strategic importance; the federal budget in 2019 allocated 1.75 trillion rubles ($24 billion) for their implementation, and, in theory, they receive extra funding and attention from the government as needed. But the projects have not been going well. They’ve been criticized by government departments and regional administrations as being too broad, too difficult to implement, and lacking performance indicators that could demonstrate success.
Initially, control over the implementation of the projects was handed to Russia’s regional governors. But in a stern address to the parliament in January 2020, Putin criticized the governors for their failure to improve educational standards in their regions and inability to supply medical services to more remote areas.
Putin has since given the ONF responsibility for aspects of projects that focus on public health and the environment, particularly ways of improving Russians’ quality of life after the pandemic. This move might rankle some regional governors, who may take comfort in the fact that the ONF has not been tasked with addressing major issues of national importance such as defense or mainstream areas of the economy. But as ONF representatives are dispatched to greater public-facing roles, it may only be a matter of time. And all this suggests that United Russia recognizes that the party lacks the common touch.
United Russia is aware that it has an image problem and that it has not performed well in elections over the past two years. The regional elections in September 2020 laid bare its unpopularity as opposition groups won seats on municipal councils in unexpected areas such as the Siberian cities of Tomsk and Novosibirsk, Russia’s third-most populous city. The September 2018 regional elections saw candidates from the Community Party and Liberal Democratic Party win several positions against United Russia candidates. Even though these parties are not considered true opposition groups, as they usually vote in line with almost all of the government’s bills, their gains indicated the extent of public disenchantment with United Russia.
Trust ratings in United Russia and even in Putin himself have fallen this year, owing to a struggling economy, unpopular moves to raise the pension age in 2018, and the ongoing pandemic. Unless United Russia is able to alter its image, it faces a serious problem in the upcoming State Duma elections this year.
United Russia currently holds a supermajority in the State Duma, controlling 343 out of 450 seats, allowing it to push through bills largely unburdened by checks and balances. But judging by the impressive array of legislation that the party proposed in November to further limit protests and increase state control over online content, United Russia does not appear confident of retaining its dominance over the State Duma without some serious intervention.
This is where the ONF might be able to help. As United Russia focuses on restriction, the ONF may be positioning itself as the friendlier face of the party. This seemed to be confirmed by statements that Kuznetsov made on Dec. 3, in a roundtable with the Expert Institute for Social Research, a body close to Putin’s circle. Kuznetsov directly called for the State Duma to identify candidates from among the ONF ahead of the elections, a request that appeared to be endorsed by other senior political officials, who noted that the ONF would likely have a better understanding of the Russian people’s problems on the ground.
The ONF, in short, is an organization to watch in the coming months. Individuals who do their jobs well and support the party are likely to be chosen for promotion and will give an important indication of the kind of political system Putin is building for the future.