A Just Russia, one of Russia’s four parliamentary parties, has demanded that four of its members, prominent opposition activists Dmitri Gudkov, Gennady Gudkov, Ilya Ponomarev, and Oleg Shein, sever all links with the protest movement. IMR Senior Policy Advisor Vladimir Kara-Murza argues that this ultimatum, which marks the end of A Just Russia’s cooperation with the pro-democracy opposition, leaves the party without a political future.
The return of A Just Russia to the Kremlin’s pool of loyal parties hardly comes as a surprise. Since its creation in 2006 in the Kremlin’s test-tube, the party, for most of its existence, has faithfully played the role of the regime’s “left foot,” as directed by chief Kremlin puppeteer Vladislav Surkov. A party established in this way could be nothing more than an artificial entity—what real political organization could simultaneously include Svetlana Goryacheva, a hardline Communist, and Galina Khovanskaya, a former member of the liberal Yabloko party?
The Socialist International helped legitimize the puppet party by accepting it as a member. In Russia’s Potemkin multiparty system (very similar to the system that existed in Vladimir Putin’s beloved East Germany), A Just Russia played the role of a “left-wing opponent” of United Russia—but not of Putin himself. When required, though, the party was always ready to provide parliamentary votes for United Russia—which became especially relevant after the 2011 election, when the Kremlin’s main party lost its two-thirds majority in the Duma.
It was precisely during the 2011-2012 political season, however, that the “left foot” tried to gain some autonomy—not out of principle, but for purely tactical reasons. After a wide spectrum of parties—from the liberal People’s Freedom Party to the left-wing United Labor Front—were denied registration and ballot access, A Just Russia’s leaders shrewdly decided to attract the “orphaned” voters. They were particularly interested in pro-democracy voters, who have been without representation in Parliament since 2003, when electoral fraud turned Yabloko’s 5.7 percent of the vote into 4.3 percent—that is, below the 5 percent threshold necessary for having representation in the Duma.
At the start of the 2011 election campaign, the head of A Just Russia, Sergei Mironov, laid flowers at the tombs of the slain democracy defenders of August 1991, and introduced pro-democracy slogans into his party platform. These included direct election of governors, mayors, and senators, the return of the “Against All” ballot option, and simplified procedures for registering political parties. Mironov’s dismissal as speaker of the upper house of Parliament helped enhance his party’s “opposition” image.
Not all of Putin’s opponents could bring themselves to vote for the Communist Party or the LDPR. Many opposition supporters voted for A Just Russia for lack of a better alternative.
A Just Russia was an undoubted beneficiary of the pro-democracy opposition’s campaign to vote “for any party” against United Russia—not so much because of its overtures to Kremlin critics, but because it was the least objectionable of the four parliamentary parties. Not all of Putin’s opponents could bring themselves to vote for Stalinists from the Communist Party, or for the misnamed Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), whose list includes a suspect in one of the most high-profile political murders. Many opposition supporters voted for A Just Russia faute de mieux—for lack of a better alternative.
The result exceeded all expectations: according to the official tally and despite all the fraud, A Just Russia received 13.2 percent of the vote. Ironically, many of these voters would have preferred voting for Yabloko, which officially came just 1.5 percent short of the 5 percent needed for a seat in the Duma and the right to nominate a presidential candidate without having to collect signatures.
For the first time since the 1990s, the political situation in Russia did not develop according to the Kremlin’s plans. When tens and hundreds of thousands of people went into the streets to protest against the rigged election, A Just Russia became the first official party to react to the new circumstances. It seemed as if the puppet organization was ready to declare its independence. A precedent for such a move already existed. According to former Politburo member Alexander Yakovlev, the aforementioned LPDR was originally set up by the KGB to create the fiction of party competition; but it became an independent political force during the democratic 1990s.
With the largest opposition demonstrations in two decades and with the regime visibly disoriented and forced into concessions, A Just Russia felt itself unleashed. Dmitri Gudkov, Gennady Gudkov, and Ilya Ponomarev—opposition activists who were elected to the Duma on the party’s ticket and who were heretofore considered political mavericks—became the de facto leaders of the party. The rhetoric of party officials toward the Kremlin became noticeably more hostile. Sergei Mironov declared that the aims of the protest rallies are “close to his heart.” A Just Russia’s leadership backed Dmitri Gudkov’s filibuster of the bill that raised penalties for “violations” at street rallies. The party’s lawmakers flamboyantly wore white ribbons—the symbol of the pro-democracy protests—to Duma sessions. As presidential candidate, Mironov accepted the demand of the pro-democracy opposition to serve as a “transitional president” whose role would be to liberalize the political system and then call early parliamentary and presidential elections.
A Just Russia’s final break with the protest movement will probably count for something in the eyes of its Kremlin handlers. With this decision, however, the party has left itself without a political future.
In the end, A Just Russia did not become an autonomous force. With the regime’s apparent stabilization and a new round of “tightening of the screws,” the party returned to its normal state of dependency. In October 2012, erstwhile rebel Sergei Mironov threatened to expel party colleagues who took part in opposition protests. In December, most lawmakers from A Just Russia supported the Kremlin-backed “scoundrels’ law” that banned adoptions of Russian orphans by U.S. citizens and placed new restrictions on nongovernmental organizations. Finally, in late January, after a 50,000-strong “March against Scoundrels” was held in Moscow, the party leadership issued an ultimatum to Dmitri Gudkov, Gennady Gudkov, Ilya Ponomarev (all of whom participated in the march) and Oleg Shein, obligating them “to choose, within a month, between either being members of A Just Russia party, or being members of… civic organizations [the Coordinating Council of the Opposition and the Left Front], whose political aims go against the party’s interests.” The party bureau also “recommended” that its members “not participate in rallies organized by other political organizations.” A Just Russia could not have sent the Kremlin a clearer message of loyalty—or, more accurately, a clearer plea for forgiveness.
A Just Russia’s final break with the protest movement will probably count for something in the eyes of its Kremlin handlers, even if, after its wavering in 2011–2012, the regime’s attitude toward the party will never be the same. With this decision, however, A Just Russia has left itself without a political future. The so-called “decline” of the protest movement is temporary. The reasons that drew tens of thousands of people onto the streets—the lies and callousness of the regime, corruption, election fraud, daily denigration of human dignity—have not disappeared. Russia’s growing urban middle class will never return to Vladimir Putin’s camp. If history is any guide, repression and crackdowns are usually followed by a greater outburst of public indignation. The only thing that is needed is an immediate reason—and the regime will certainly provide one. Soon enough, Russia will have a different political system, different elections, and a different Parliament. It will also have different parties, and it is unlikely that one named “A Just Russia” will be among them.