For the past decade the Kremlin has been weeding and pruning Russia's wild and overgrown post-Soviet political garden, hoping to shape a legislative system based on a few large, permanent, and loyal parties.
Now, with a fresh parliamentary campaign barely a year away, President Vladimir Putin may come under pressure to lend credibility to the process by actually joining a party himself.
Though Russia has a presidential system sometimes likened to that in the US, its post-Soviet presidents have been made by Kremlin intrigues rather than a grass-roots process of primaries and electoral standard-bearing for a major party. "Russia has evolved into a kind of a monarchy, where the president stands above politics," says Andrei Ryabov, an expert with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow. "The president makes decisions, but he is not answerable for them. He is not tied to a particular team and a party that reaches down into the society. This gives him a lot of room to maneuver and manipulate, but it comes at a cost for our democracy."
Like his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, Mr. Putin has played an active role in creating political parties and dictating their place in Russian political life. Mr. Yeltsin actually formed a new "party of power" to carry the Kremlin's banner into each fresh election, only to discard it afterward. In 1999 the Unity Party finished first in parliamentary elections, though it had been founded only a few months earlier by a group of business oligarchs and top officials and had only one plank in its platform: to support the new prime minister and presidential heir, Vladimir Putin.
Unity has since merged with several other groups and become a sprawling political camp called United Russia, which dominates the Duma, openly boasts of vast official backing, and aspires to be the permanent party of Kremlin power. Yet Putin declines to become a member, and has lately flirted with an alternative "party of power" started by his personal friend Sergei Mironov, the chairman of Parliament's upper house.
"Many of our political parties have been grown in a Kremlin petri dish," says Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the independent Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow. "We lack a grassroots system of party formation, and now it doesn't look like it will develop."
Russia has almost 200 parties of every imaginable stripe, but only a few of them will be left standing after a tough reregistration process is completed under a Kremlin-authored law passed by the Duma last year. Under the law, a party must have at least 10,000 members, and demonstrate a significant presence in at least half of Russia's 89 regions, in order to win the right to participate in elections at any level. "Even the largest parties are having trouble meeting the requirements, but smaller and region-based parties don't have a chance," says Vladimir Pribuilovsky, director ofPanorama, an independent political think tank. "The field will narrow significantly by the time of the elections."
The Communist Party, which regularly wins about a quarter of the popular vote, has sailed through registration, as has United Russia. Other parties with substantial Duma representation such as the left-liberal Yabloko, market-conservative Union of Right Wing Forces, and the ultranationalist party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky are also expected to scrape through. But a more radical communist-type party, headed by militant leftist Viktor Tyulkin, has been denied registration. So has Liberal Russia, a new opposition group financed by renegade business tycoon Boris Berezovsky. "The law on political parties potentially gives the authorities the power to decide who will be allowed to participate," says Mr. Pribuilovsky. "The Kremlin wants to have a stable of tame parties that cover the spectrum including tame communists, tame democrats, and tame patriots."
Dominating the field is United Russia, which claims to have the support of at least a third of voters. But the party appears to be growing increasingly nervous over the failure of its main sponsor, the ever-popular Putin, to join. Last week UR's chairman, Alexander Bespalov, said the party might introduce legislation requiring state leaders to associate themselves with a political party. "United Russia wins its support on the claim that it is close to the Kremlin and can get things done," says Alexei Karamurza, a liberal Duma deputy. "It's a cynical appeal, and bankrupt of ideas, but it will get votes. However, there is a feeling that Putin should be more closely connected with the party."
But Party membership would limit Putin's scope for political maneuvering and create unwanted pressures for presidential accountability to the party rank-and-file. There are also signs that the Kremlin may be unhappy with its creation. "It was probably a mistake to make United Russia so big and put all the eggs in that basket," says Sergei Mikhailov, deputy head of the independent Social-Political Center in Moscow. "UR is drifting on its connection to power, and totally lacks ideas. The president may be looking elsewhere for a party to back next time."
Under the new law, the biggest losers are small, regional parties who will be denied any chance to grow through participation in elections. One such group is the independence-minded Baltic Republican Party in the western enclave of Kaliningrad. Its leader, Sergei Pasko, says the law effectively stifles democratic choice about the territory's options. "Our party has no representatives outside Kaliningrad, so we have no chance to register or take part even in local elections," he says. "This means we must find other ways to express ourselves." The law's supporters say it will promote national unity by sidelining groups like Pasko's and similar groups in some ethnic republics of the country which advocate separatist or regionalist policies. Critics warn it will weaken the political process by driving such views underground.
Even the handful of big survivors may face troubles as the public loses interest in what they view as a made-to-Kremlin-order political system. Voter turnout in local elections has been dropping sharply, and a study sponsored by the Academy of Sciences this year found that two-thirds of Russians regard their electoral system as window-dressing. "The people can see that elections are no longer fair contests, and I'm afraid at some point they will just stop taking part in them entirely," says Alexander Yakovlev, a former Kremlin adviser often credited with authoring the democratization drive of ex-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.