It was coming. The idea of pouring United Russia’s amorphous body into ideological mold has been around for quite some time. President Putin has asked for that. Chairman Gryzlov agreed it was needed. Former Secretary of the General Council Bogomolov promised it would happen. In February, the names of authors-to-be of a liberal platform were publicly spelled out. It took them, though, almost three more months to finally present their views to the media. Two days later, a competing manifesto was laid out by United Russi! a’s “left” who argued that the liberal bias was “a serious political mistake” and that the party ought to remain “social-conservative.”
The ideological “schism” within United Russia can hardly be surprising as the party had absorbed too many people of opposing views. But the timing is still intriguing. Both liberal and social-conservative platforms – as presented – include no specific proposals or recommendations. It shouldn’t obviously have taken long to put them together. Why then weren’t they made public much earlier, weeks or even months before? Why now? A likely explanation is that it is only very recently that President Putin has made up his mind about his political future after 2008. And this future appears to rely on reformed and ideologically coherent United Russia.
Among different options for post-2008, two were discussed the most: Putin running for the third presidential term and Putin becoming prime minister in a parliamentary republic. Both options would require changes to the current Constitution and would critically depend on the absolute majority – and, therefore, the unity -- of United Russia in the Duma. The fact that the Kremlin has allowed the potentially explosive intra-party discussion to take off seems to indicate that both “third-term” and “parliamentary republic” scenarios were shelved, if not outright rejected.
In a recent interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta (April 8, 2005), well-informed and close to the presidential administration Gleb Pavlovsky spoke about his vision of United Russia becoming a party that would provide political support to Putin after – repeat, after -- his current term in office expires. According to Pavlovsky, Putin will have multiple “employment opportunities” to choose from but is unlikely to run for any government office. Putin as a leader of United Russia seems to fit well into this scheme. However, following Pavlovsky’s logic, one could also see Putin as the head of an Aramco-like state energy company which would allow him – in a w! ay similar to China’s Deng Xiao Ping – to exert enormous influence over all aspects of Russia’s life without assuming any official political position at all.
Which ideology should United Russia adopt to become a party “of Putin”? The platform born by “social-conservatives” places them at risk of being accused in plagiarism by the Communists. Social-conservatives seem to be primarily occupied by controlling the damage inflicted to the party’s reputation by the public protests in response to monetization of benefits. Although not explicitly stated, it appears that for all the problems facing the country, social-conservatives have the same simple solution: spending more petrorubles on social programs.
In contrast, the task before United Russia’s liberals looks almost Herculean. Many ordinary Russians identify liberalism – at least, economic liberalism – with sharp decrease in living standards in the 90s and with the privatization that they consider unfair or even criminal. Perhaps, just by guaranteeing property rights, a reduced role of the state in economy, and a truly independent judiciary, United Russia will become attractive enough to Russia’s shaken and disoriented business community. But to win over hearts and minds of the rest of electorate, United Russia’s liberals would have to translate their ideolo! gical constructs into simple election slogans that would resonate among different groups of voters. Explaining how to reform the health system and higher education – without destroying the former and making cost-prohibitive the latter -- would be of paramount importance in this respect.
Having barely started, the ideological battle within United Russia has already claimed its first casualties. Two of the three top party officials, Secretary of General Council Valery Bogomolov and Head of Central Executive Committee Yurii Volkov, resigned last week and were replaced by Duma Vice-Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin and Duma deputy Andrei Vorobyov, respectively. Are those personnel shuffles simply bureaucratic equivalents to changing horses -- before stepping into a stream? Neither resigned man’s tenure at United Russia can be viewed as a total failure.! Mr. Volkov can claim credit for a string of victories in recent regional elections, and Mr. Bogomolov successfully lobbied for a number of amendments to the new election law that are highly favorable to United Russia. But both repeatedly feuded with regional party bosses who accused Bogomolov and Volkov in heavy-handed micromanaging. Besides, neither one has ever shown a flair for conceptual thinking. Moreover, on numerous occasions, Mr. Volkov openly questioned the very need for United Russia to have any “ideology.”
The most important job for the new party leadership will be to keep the discussion lively enough to produce results without letting emotions boil over threatening the party split. Incoming Secretary of General Council Volodin seems to be a good fit for the job with his amicable relations with regional party leaders and lack of “ideology” of his own. Little is known about Mr. Vorobyov, and the consensus is that his role in the party – at least for now -- is merely “technical.”