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What is Russian party of power?

RIA Novosti

2005 06 14

MOSCOW (Tatyana Stanovaya for RIA Novosti) - The phrase "party of power" is applied only to party organizations in the former Soviet Union.

In Russia, the first party of power emerged in 1993 ahead of the first parliamentary elections. The movement was called Choice of Russia and united democratic forces that became the ideological foundation for Boris Yeltsin's new system.

Parties of power later became increasingly less ideological, more administrative and less independent politically. In other words, the phenomenon turned into a tool for the political management of the party system.

Conventional wisdom runs that a party of power is one that represents the interests of the authorities. Its main distinction from a ruling party is that the decision-making nucleus remains outside the party. For example, United Russia, Russia's current party of power, played no role last year in the selection of the prime minister. Its functions now boil down to legitimizing the government's decisions through its parliamentary faction.

Interestingly, the success of a party of power provides an insight into what is happening within the authorities. Weak and divided authorities have never been able to establish a strong party of power. Under Yeltsin, they failed to receive a majority in the parliament: Choice of Russia received only 15% of the vote in 1993, and Our Home is Russia 10% in 1995.

Moreover, parties of power often split, reflecting competition inside the authorities: In 1993, Choice of Russia rivaled with the Party of Russian Unity and Consent led by Sergei Shakhrai, as Choice of Russia leader Yegor Gaidar wanted to replace incumbent Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

In 1995, the right of center bloc Our Home Russia was "contained" by Ivan Rybkin's left of center bloc, which reflected a political struggle inside Yeltsin's inner circle.

The fiercest confrontation between parties of power was seen in 1999, when the authorities were split: regional parties of power united in a pro-Moscow bloc, Fatherland All Russia, and opposed the Kremlin.

The situation changed drastically after Vladimir Putin came to power. The Kremlin took a systematic approach toward managing the party system. If in the past party building had mainly taken place in the political center, now it affected the left wing as well: at the 2003 parliamentary election the left-wing patriotic bloc Homeland, led by Kremlin loyalist Dmitry Rogozin, received an unexpectedly high number of votes, whereas the Communist Party's support halved. Right-wing parties - the Union of Right Forces and Yabloko - were simply defeated; if under Yeltsin and in the "early" Putin era they had been partners for the authorities, now the Kremlin no longer needs them.

United Russia is the strongest party of power in Russia's modern history. This is largely due to the popularity of the president, who supports it, and the authorities themselves securing a firmer power base: elite groups have consolidated around the president, a vertical of power has been established, and oligarchs have become ordinary businessmen (whereas business once played a proactive role in party building). Strong authorities mean a strong party of power. At the same time, the political value of the party of power for the Kremlin has increased significantly.

Mistakes in conducting social reforms (for example, the January protests over the replacement of benefits in-kind with cash payments) put United Russia in a difficult situation. On the one hand, it was duty-bound to support the government. On the other hand, it wanted to keep voters on its side. So it was no coincidence that United Russia abstained in a vote of no confidence in the government in February.

That situation showed a remarkable incongruity: as the party of power, United Russia was eager to criticize the authorities represented by the government. There is only one way to end this incongruity: the government should be formed from parties. Then a party of power would become ruling and share responsibility for decisions. This is possible only if United Russia is given the right to form the government.

In his annual state of the nation address in 2003, Vladimir Putin spoke about the need to form a Cabinet based on the parliamentary majority. But this has never happened, and the government continues to rely on United Russia in parliament only with the Kremlin's mediation.

In his address this year, the president also said that parliamentary majorities in regional parliaments should propose candidates for governors. But in this case the support of the majority is given to a candidate the president has already chosen.

The difficulties in giving parties real powers are caused by fears of losing political control over the executive. This is particularly important given that the parliamentary elections in 2007 and presidential election in 2008 are now on the horizon: the success of the party of power will be one of the factors guaranteeing a painless transition of presidential power in 2008.

Tatyana Stanovaya is a leading expert with the Center of Political Technologies

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