Russian Bureaucracy Builds Its Own Party

The prominent Bolshevik and Politburo member Nikolai Bukharin once joked that there could only ever be two parties in Russia: one in the Kremlin and the other in prison. It was an unfortunate joke and Bukharin no doubt realized this when he was moved from the Kremlin to prison in the Lubyanka.

While the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) still existed, the country was kept firmly behind the bars of official ideology, but even party bosses had to abide by certain rules. The Soviet “social pact” was straightforward: The population unquestioningly did as it was told, and party bosses did not allow themselves too many excesses.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the nomenklatura preferred for a while the freedom of life without party affiliation. Former party functionaries joyfully threw away their party cards, and along with them any responsibility before the people and the law. For them, democracy meant that the ruling class was freed from any kind of constraints or need to observe proprieties.

Over the years, there have been several attempts to introduce order in the ranks of the ex-nomenklatura, using traditional top-down methods. The first attempt at building a “party of power” was undertaken by the unforgettable Viktor Stepanovich Chernomyrdin, who in slapdash fashion constructed Our Home Is Russia out of national, regional and local-level functionaries.

Chernomyrdin’s jerry-built edifice collapsed the minute its owner ceased to be prime minister. All that remains of this flawed project is the immortal phrase of its chief architect: “No matter how we build the party, we always end up with the CPSU.” Alas, Chernomyrdin was flattering himself: Our Home Is Russia was a far cry from the CPSU. The Soviet Communist Party was a solid and durable structure, fragments of which can still be seen here and there on Russia’s political landscape. Post-Soviet parties of power cannot boast of such achievements.

In 1999, the old nomenklatura overreached itself and hastily put together two whole parties of power: one under then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and the other under Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov.

One can, of course, criticize such profligacy, but the problem was that regional bosses couldn’t figure out who was going to emerge as the country’s head honcho. And that’s why we ended up with both Unity and Fatherland — like two broilers off the same production line. When the situation cleared up, the parties had to merge, and the result was United Russia. Now, the country’s leadership finally has a single party — the only problem is what to do with it.

Any Soviet schoolboy could explain the necessity of the CPSU. It coordinated and controlled the mechanism of government, selecting cadres and punishing the disobedient. Today’s United Russia would like to be like the CPSU, but cannot and does not want to play an analogous role in society. Previously, the party selected officials and assigned jobs to them. Nowadays, officials are ready to join the party, but personnel decisions are made elsewhere. They are happy to be members of United Russia, but not to be accountable to it.

So, how can they be brought to book? The Soviet Communist Party had a clear-cut ideology. United Russia has none. There is a joke doing the rounds that in Sergei Shoigu’s Emergency Situations Ministry, only the fire hoses haven’t been made to join the party. Once you occupy a certain position in the bureaucracy, you have no choice but to join the party of power. However, if you are a member and you occupy a respectable position, no one really cares about your ideological predilections. United Russia is a party of like-minded individuals — but only in the sense that its members want to be big bosses.

With parliamentary elections set for the end of this year, hoards of little-known politicos have thrown their hats into ring, hoping to win a seat in this rather incomprehensible legislative body. We all know that the State Duma is responsible for enacting new laws, but why Russia needs more laws is something that no one — even the people who write them — can explain. Living in accordance with the law is preferable to lawlessness, of course. But it’s no secret that real life in Russia follows the law of necessity far more often than the law of the land.

The Duma also adopts the federal budget, however, and this is the source of our legislators’ appeal and usefulness to their various backers. Pocketing a deputy or two is a minor business expense for major corporations, especially with oil prices at their current level. Major players can now afford to maintain a whole parliamentary faction in the style to which it has become accustomed.

Russian business always comes up with the cash in election years. Bankrolling a campaign is a solid investment for big firms — one that more than pays for itself in tax breaks, government contracts and high-level access. Small-time businessmen often choose to become deputies themselves. In addition to the prestige, a seat in parliament provides immunity from prosecution. An executive caught looting his company can’t be thrown in jail. But he can be whacked. History has shown that contract killers have little respect for deputies’ immunity.

Barring some unforeseen development, the upcoming elections will be none too dramatic, although a measure of intrigue remains, particularly surrounding the prospects of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party. The party’s leaders and patrons expect it to win an overwhelming majority of the seats in the next Duma, and the lion’s share of the money that comes with them. This expectation is entirely in line with Russia’s new state ideology, and with current thinking in the Kremlin.

The simplest approach would be to appoint all Duma deputies from a list drawn up by the presidential administration. The problem is that the electorate has other plans. “Administrative resources” can generate 5 to 6 percent more votes for Kremlin-picked candidates, translating into 30 to 40 more deputies from single-mandate districts. But to turn this slender advantage into a landslide victory, the Kremlin would have to install Merlin atop the Central Election Commission.

While the presidential administration ponders how to divide up the Duma, a sizeable chunk of the electorate is preparing to vote for the Communists, just as they always have. The number of voters who cast their votes for the Communists hovers somewhere between 35 and 40 percent of the total, regardless of the party’s poll numbers. The Kremlin can’t afford to give that many seats to an opposition (if only in name) party, but it hasn’t yet figured out how to avert such an outcome.

Gennady Zyuganov’s party has been battered with scandals and intrigue aimed at splitting its ranks or installing new leadership. And these power plays have only increased as Russia’s other political organizations have shown their total bankruptcy. None of this has anything to do with ideas and principles, of course. As the well-known journalist Anatoly Baranov put it, this is not a battle of titans, but a scuffle between very large insects — interesting enough to watch, but you’d be hard pressed to sympathize with any of the combatants.

While United Russia is divvying up seats it hasn’t won yet, and the Communists are fighting for their political lives, the third main party of post-Soviet Russia, Yabloko, is pondering the age-old question: “To be or not to be?”

By some miracle the party has consistently cleared the 5-percent barrier required for party-list representation in the Duma. Yabloko’s leaders, always scurrying to prevent the party’s total collapse, are seized by dark thoughts every four years.

Will the voters turn out to support them? Will other, bigger parties attempt to snatch their seats? You’d have a tough time stealing 10 to 15 percent of the Communists’ votes, but making off with 2 to 3 percent of Yabloko’s votes would be like taking candy from a baby. Yabloko is in no position to defend itself; in fact, it can’t even arrange for enough polling-station observers to keep track of stolen votes on election day.

The big question in the 2003 election resembles a math problem for 8-year-olds: How many votes must be stolen from Yabloko during the counting process to satisfy United Russia without offending the Communists?

United Russia is declared to win the elections before the campaign even began and its main struggle now is not to win at the polls but to convince president Vladimir Putin that the next government must be formed according to its advice. The formation of government along party lines is a sound democratic principle.

However, the formation of a party based on the position you occupy in officialdom is a very Russian approach, or rather, a very Soviet one. United Russia resembles the former nomenklatura daydreaming. On the one hand, the political bosses think they are young again and members of the CPSU. On the other, even in their worst nightmares they would never swap their luxury Mercedes for an uncomfortable Volga, or return to the Soviet norms of pilfering, which are rather modest by today’s standards.

In short, you can’t really turn back the clock. And I also hope, that the bad habit of locking up dissidents will never be revived by the country’s leadership. But here I can be wrong…

Boris Kagarlitsky is director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.

Leave a comment