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The United Russia party has retained its firm foothold in the center of Russia’s political scene although Vladimir Putin has long ceased to be its official leader. Those who at a certain point hurried to write it off as an influential political force obviously found a mare’s nest. This is the gist of what most experts have been saying in the wake of United Russia’s 14th congress, which ended last Saturday. The All-Russia People’s Front - For Russia, which President Vladimir Putin established a while ago, has failed to push United Russia to the sidelines, while some analysts anticipated just the opposite until just recently. Apparently, these two political structures will co-exist side by side for some time. Moreover, United Russia, which positions itself as a “party of the people,” improved its ratings somewhat.
The congress has shown that Vladimir Putin continues to be seen inside United Russia as a real leader, although Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev took over as the party’s chairman in May 2012. Putin was absent from the congress’s full-scale sessions, but on the eve of the event he had met with the leaders of the party’s locals to declare that he regarded United Russia as a party of the people and described it as a pillar of Russian statehood. In this way Putin cleared up his relationship with the party for the public at large.
The daily Kommersant says this statement by the president was really breaking news, because on all previous occasions Putin used such terms mostly in relation to the All-Russia People’s Front. At the full-scale meetings of the United Russia congress Putin was described as a moral leader. The newly-elected head of the auditing commission, Nina Kudashova, explained the party’s attitude to Putin in this way. The president must have a supra-party status. “The People’s Front is a supra-party movement,” she said and added: “The party will not go under, don’t you worry.”
United Russia expressed its intention to get rid of “black sheep.” Earlier, radical opposition figurehead Aleksei Navalny labeled United Russia a party of “cheaters and thieves.” And Internet bloggers started publishing various disclosures and compromising evidence, such as cases of plagiarism in dissertation papers authored by high-ranking United Russia functionaries and information about their undeclared properties outside in other countries.
From now on the auditing commission is to perform the functions of not just an economic and administrative division, but of the “party’s conscience.” Its responsibility will be to keep an eye on whether party members abide by the principles of ethics and morality. Under a new rule introduced to the party’s Charter the membership of any senior functionary or rank-and-file who has been indicted on criminal charges shall be automatically suspended. “One black sheep is a disgrace to the whole family,” Kudashova said.
Clearly, United Russia no longer wishes to have the image of a party of big bosses. The annual rotation of personnel in its leadership bodies will be increased from 10% to 15%. The leaders of party locals - minor functionaries well aware of the real state of affairs at the grassroots level - will be phasing out some State Duma members and governors.
Dmitry Medvedev urged United Russia to be up-to-date and promptly respond to society’s expectations.
United Russia declared its intention to build a constructive relationship with the government. For this it will systematize its efforts to monitor situations in various spheres of life - from the housing and utilities sector and school education to small and medium businesses. Also, the party intends to improve the practice of wide discussions of initiatives and decisions and to involve the people into this dialogue far more actively.
Experts’ opinions of the United Russia congress are varied, but everybody agrees that the party remains the leading political force in Russia.
The deputy director of the Political Technologies Center, Boris Makarenko, is critical of the congress’s outcome. Interviewed by ITAR-TASS, Makarenko said he did not believe the party’s professed intention to face the people’s needs and to pay greater attention to social programs, such as the development of pre-school childcare centers and housing and utilities problems and to lower the prices of utility services. “The party’s members talked a great deal about social projects in the past. In reality, it was the government that was doing that job all along, for which it spent budget money. As for United Russia functionaries, they just kept saying ‘We are the champions.’”
However, Makarenko believes that United Russia will retain its positions in the regions where the administrative resource is still strong and where the people still experience strong paternalistic sentiment. But United Russia is surely unable to become a modern, capable competitive party as long as its present shape remains unchanged.
Public Chamber member Sergei Markov, the director of the Political Studies Institute, predicts that United Russia should brace for a dramatic future: “At the congress United Russia leaders urged their fellow party members to agree to share the Dmitry Medvedev-led government’s responsibility for the social effects of the 2014-2016 budget sequestration. Whereas before United Russia managed to distance itself from the government’s unpopular measures, such as the cash-for-benefits swap, now the people’s anger over the proposed slashing of social programs in the three-year budget will hit United Russia really hard.”
Markov warns that United Russia should brace for growing competition from other parties, whose criticism of the authorities’ policies helps them score political points.
The chairman of the State Duma’s education committee, Vyacheslav Nikonov, of United Russia, compares what his party was under Putin and what it has been under Dmitry Medvedev.
“The party is the same, but its image has changed,” Nikonov told ITAR-TASS in an interview. “Under Medvedev’s leadership the party has become less politicized, now it has the image of a university lecturer. The tide of criticism against United Russia peaked in 2011-2012, but Medvedev has nothing to do with it whatsoever.”
“The September 8 local elections and the 14th congress have shown that it is too early to write off United Russia as the ruling party,” the president of the National Strategy Institute, Mikhail Remizov told ITAR-TASS. “There had been such fears inside the party and outside it just recently. Now United Russia can feel itself quite comfortable.”
Remizov believes that United Russia’s position is better than it was two years ago, when the party looked like a bugbear to many, and a large segment of the political establishment sought to distance from it in every possible way. One of the reasons is United Russia’s election campaign this time was much calmer and less aggressive.
Also, Remizov pointed to the infusion of young blood. The congress confirmed a policy of reliance on regional figures that are capable of building up the party’s resource, and not wish to tap that resource to one’s own benefit.
Clearly, a decision has been made to preserve both United Russia and the ARPF in the short term.
“So far their tasks have remained different. The ARPF provides support for the president as a supra-party figure,” Remizov said.