Is Putin trading his own party for a new power base?

With his United Russia party's popularity diminishing, Putin appears to be reorganizing his political power with the Popular Front, an East German-style, extra-political body.

Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Reuters
People take part in a conference held by the All-Russian People's Front group and attended by President Vladimir Putin in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don on Friday.

President Vladimir Putin is moving to redesign Russia's political system by shouldering aside the ruling party that has anchored his power for the past dozen years and creating a new, East German-style Popular Front of all Russians, which would stand above political parties and be led by him personally.

Mr. Putin kicked off an intense round of meetings last week, which is expected to lead to the founding convention of the new Popular Front in early June. In a teleconference with activists, he pledged that the organization and its multitude of street-level members would have direct access to power and policy-making.

"I think that the People’s Front can play a big part here as a broad platform where people with different views and approaches can work out a consensus on resolving our key development problems," Putin told them, according to a transcript posted on the Kremlin's official website.

In a wide-ranging discussion, Putin outlined his education and labor policies with the activists, and promised to restore the old "Hero of Socialist Labor" award, with which the former Soviet Union recognized workers for special achievements. "I know that the idea has support not just from people in professions like yours, people who use their hands and their heads in their work, but is also supported by key trade union groups in the country," he told them. Before the day was out, he passed a decree making it so.

The idea of a mass popular organization that could channel Putin's will directly into every corner of society, giving him the ability to mobilize Russians and promote his personal policies over the heads of government, bureaucracy, and parliament, has been in the works for a couple of years now.

Experts say the plan partially reflects Putin's frustration with the existing ruling party, United Russia, which won its current majority in parliament through an election widely regarded as fraud-tainted. Pollsters say United Russia's popularity hovers at a still-respectable 40 percent or so, but its negative rating – that is, people who actively dislike it – has climbed over the past two years to around 45 percent. According to a February survey by the independent Levada Center in Moscow, 40 percent of Russians associate United Russia with the phrase "party of rogues and thieves," up from 36 percent a year ago.

"The general trend in Russian politics is to establish a kind of corporate state in which political parties play a subordinate role and the national leader is able to address different constituencies directly," says Nikolai Petrov, a political science professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

"Putin has opted for this kind of amorphous structure, which can enable him to get the electoral results he wants, but will never interfere with his personal power and prerogatives.... We are witnessing a weakening of political parties, and of the political system in general. That means the role of the political class will diminish, and the role of Putin will grow," he adds.

An East German model

Though the Popular Front concept appears infused with nostalgia for the old USSR – still a powerful political meme in Russia – it is not particularly a Soviet idea. In the USSR, a one-party state, the Communist Party played the role of the sun, around which all civil society groups revolved. Some experts believe Putin has adapted his Popular Front scheme from the former East Germany where he served as a KGB spy in the late 1980s. In East Germany, nominally a multiparty and pluralistic state, an overarching National Front served as the instrument of control overall.

Some analysts speculate that Putin may actually replace United Russia, which is led by former President and current Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, perhaps by calling snap Duma elections within a year and throwing his personal weight behind the Popular Front.

Putin recently ordered changes to Russia's electoral rules, to re-introduce a system by which half of the Duma's 450 seats are elected by proportional representation – in which people vote for a party rather than a candidate – and the other half will be chosen by first-past-the-post local constituency races. That change, which is a return to Russia's 1990s system, will strongly favor forces that are strong on the ground in localities, as the Popular Front is expected to be, over national-scale political parties.

Ironically, it was Putin himself who abolished local constituency contests a decade ago, and filled the Duma with deputies chosen solely by political parties, back in the days when he was basing his power on a strong majority parliamentary caucus of United Russia.

A power shift or window-dressing?

"The Popular Front was conceived some time ago, but then political and economic conditions eased, and it was put on the back burner for a time," says Mikhail Delyagin, director of the independent Institute for Globalization Studies in Moscow.

"Now the economy is stalling, conflicts within the elite are sharpening, and we are going to see United Russia scapegoated for all problems. The Popular Front is being created out of the same elites, but some figures will be removed, and new ones will appear. The result will be a new party of power, looking immaculate and stainless, instead of the scandal-tainted United Russia.... It's basically a change of window-dressing," Mr. Delyagin says.

Others argue that Putin's purpose is not to replace United Russia, but simply to diminish its role as the Popular Front, with a street-level and store-front presence in every Russian region, takes on more functions of shaping the country's political realities – including the selection of candidates for the Duma.

"The Popular Front will be a movement, not a party. It won't take part directly in elections," says Dmitri Orlov, director of the independent Agency of Political and Economic Communications in Moscow.

"The tasks of the Front will be to draw political parties, public organizations, and specific individuals into the authorities' orbit, and to enforce their loyalty. Through the Front, Putin will hold regular dialogues with different social groups and public constituencies; it may become a mechanism for renovating the elites" according to the Kremlin's designs, he says.

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