20 years under Putin: a timeline

The founding congress of the All-Russia People’s Front (ARPF), which will now be called the People’s Front for Russia, was held in Moscow in June. It was no surprise that President Vladimir Putin became its leader. Also elected to the front’s central staff were film director Stanislav Govorukhin, Delovaya Rossiya co-chairman Alexander Galushka, and State Duma member and TV journalist Olga Timofeyeva. Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya discusses whether the ARPF will become a political party and what effect the organization will have on the political landscape.



However strange it may sound, the People’s Front did not exist until the founding congress in June. There were a number of figures and organizations that openly supported Putin during the presidential elections. This, however, was a virtual coalition, not a legal body. The ARPF was a product of TV propaganda, an instrument used to demonstrate all Russia’s love for the “national leader.” In practice, however, United Russia remained the Kremlin’s main supporter and did not at all like the appearance of a potential absorber.

The Front is currently changing its legal and political form. During the founding congress, the ARPF was transformed into a political movement. According to the Russian legislation, political movements do not have the right to issue party lists during elections, but recent State Duma electoral system reform allows candidates to be elected from a single-member district. Half of the lower house of the Russian Parliament will now be elected according to the first-past-the-post system.

The ARPF currently consists of four key parts. The first element is made up of Vladimir Putin’s election “proxies.” This is the party’s core. Interestingly, the Kremlin’s need for proxies did not disappear with the end of the presidential campaign. In December, the president had a long and fruitful meeting with his authorized representatives during which it became known that the institution of proxies would be preserved. As a source in the presidential administration told Vedomosti, without proxies, Putin will not be able to finish his planned reforms. At the time, such a contention sounded strange: Was Putin really so weak that he could not control the government machine himself?

The ARPF is an aggressive instrument for forcing the opinion of one part of society upon another part.

There was no substantial difference between the group of proxies and the ARPF at the time. They both had the same function of mobilizing pro-Putin forces, and both used a “close to the people” communication approach to draw together the head of state and his supporters. There are several differences between the two, however. First of all, Putin’s authorized representatives are positioning themselves as a group of mediators between Putin and his electorate. The ARPF, in contrast, is supposed to represent a part of the people more broadly. Second, proxies have never been and cannot be independent players: their task consists of getting Putin’s point of view across to the public. The ARPF is a more aggressive and direct instrument for forcing the opinion of one part of society upon another part. This is a reflection of the growing polarization between the country’s passive majority and its active minority. The ARPF is intended to mobilize the former.

Putin’s proxies are athletes, actors, and film directors who are well known in Russia. They represent the part of the Russian cultural elite that is loyal to the president. Many Front members, such as movie director Stanislav Govorukhin, director of the Research Institute of Emergent Children’s Surgery and Traumatology of Moscow Leonid Roshal, first woman astronaut Valentina Tereshkova, head of Mosfilm Studios Karen Shakhnazarov, and artistic and general director of the Mariinsky Theatre Valery Gergiev, supported Putin during his presidential campaign.

But this is not enough for Putin anymore. The Kremlin has decided that the intelligentsia has always been far removed from the needs of the “common people.” That is why the representatives of the “people” have become the second key part of the ARPF in a move reminiscent of a Soviet practice in which members of the Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR were elected from public organizations, trade unions, cooperatives, women’s councils, work and war veterans’ organizations, scientific societies, and artistic unions on a quota basis. The ARPF thus looks like a virtual Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR, but without judicial legitimacy. It is no surprise, then, that among the Front’s founding members are many people of “common occupation,” such as doctors, teachers, state employees, workmen, and so on. “Representatives of blue-collar jobs and trade unions will compose the biggest group among founding members—11.3 percent,” organizers of the founding congress told Interfax. According to the organizers’ estimates, representatives of the industrial production sector, the social security services sector, the scientific community, higher education, and veterans will each account for around 10 percent of the Front’s founding members. Almost 48 percent of founding members will be citizens aged between 35 and 55. According to the Front, founding members will also include medical workers and cultural and arts representatives. The least represented groups will be mass media workers (6.3 percent), members of political parties (5.8 percent), and farmers (5.2 percent). “480 people will become founders of the ARPF. 229 among them are people aged between 36 and 55, 115 [are] aged between 18 and 35, and 136 are 56 years old and up,” stated representatives of the congress’s organizing committee.

However, neither the first ARPF component nor the second one will play a representative role. Whatever they may say about the Front, this group offers only mock representation, with neither rights nor authority. Its only task consists of creating an illusion of different social strata and key professions expressing their support for the president. In his address to the founding congress, Putin said that the Front must give all citizens “the chance to set their popular goals and reach them, take action on issues that often get bogged down in the bureaucratic swamp.” The idea of being able to access the president by going through just three or four people sounds beautiful.

So what will be the instruments of communication between the electorate and the government? The congress of the ARPF, which will convene at least once every two years, will be the movement’s highest governing body. The congress will have the right to change the charter and elect (for a five-year term) the central staff, which will include three co-chairpersons who will only be able to remain in office for two consecutive terms—just like the president of Russia. The ARPF will have local offices, which, according to head of the Front’s federal organizing committee Andrei Bocharov, will be created in all the regions of the Russian Federation. These offices’ structure will mirror that of the Front’s federal governing bodies, with three co-chairpersons and a central staff. Front offices will probably be established on the municipal level as well. The ARPF is positioning itself as a powerful political force (after all, it is backed by Putin!) that will participate in legislative and governmental activity on a number of different levels. The Front is also supposed to fulfill the task of controlling the government.


United Russia and the ARPF have had an uneasy relationship.


All this may be fine, but the only source of legitimacy of the Front’s “authority” is the president. For some reason, nobody has wondered why Putin, who controls all of the government institutions, needs a parallel structure that seems to be trying to replace both the executive and the legislative branches.

Putin’s regime has always been known for creating special supercommissions, committees, and separate mechanisms in order to circumvent legitimate government institutions in solving difficult problems. This has often been understandable, given the sharp decline in the state’s effectiveness and key problem-solving mechanisms. However, the ARPF still looks redundant.

The reason for its existence is evident: two main government institutions are currently in a state of political crisis, though those terms have not yet been openly used. The first institution is the government itself, which is a parody of the executive branch. As many decisions remain stalled, the competition between the cabinet and the administration worsens. The Kremlin has created a large number of duplicate structures that act as substitutes for Dmitry Medvedev’s government. Medvedev himself works under the constant threat of dismissal. For the first time ever, Putin has to run the country with a (truly) ridiculous government that is not respected by either the population or the elites. Thus, one of the Front’s informal tasks will be to kick the government into action once in a while. This will serve the interests of the part of Putin’s close circle that is lobbying for a change of government. The ARPF is clearly an anti-Medvedev force.

The State Duma is the second government institution facing a crisis. Parliament, the ruling party, and the other systemic parties have an extremely bad reputation among the public, and people’s confidence in them is critically low. Moreover, this ebbing confidence is only the beginning of the erosion of the Kremlin’s control over Parliament. The primary issue is not only the bureaucratic capabilities of the presidential administration, which still remains very powerful, but also the risk of an uncontrolled decrease in support of United Russia by the conformist part of Russian society. Simulated competition among the systemic parties—the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, and A Just Russia—is no longer sufficient for keeping alive any political suspense. Politics in the legal political field died in September 2011 when Putin announced his decision to return to the Kremlin. Politics moved to the nonsystemic sphere, where leaders of the street protest movement suffer tough pressure and criminal persecution.

In other words, United Russia no longer serves the goals that the Kremlin has set for itself. Despite some stabilization, political risks, especially in the medium term, remain extremely high. This is why, no matter how hard it tries to resist, the ruling party represents the third component of the ARPF. Thus, the ARPF central staff includes secretary of United Russia General Council Sergei Neverov, head of the UR caucus in the State Duma Vladimir Vasiliyev, deputy secretary of the UR General Council Olga Batalina, and UR General Council member Irina Yarovaya.

United Russia no longer serves the goals that the Kremlin has set for itself.

This group represents a forced union of the ARPF and United Russia, with the latter becoming simply a resource for the former. Efforts have already been made to create a deputy group of the Front within the United Russia caucus in the State Duma; these efforts, however, were suppressed as renegade actions. How many more similar efforts are likely to be made? It looks like the Front’s growing tendency to gradually penetrate governmental bodies through United Russia will only provoke increasing resistance by the ruling party. The day will undoubtedly come when a part of the party’s bureaucracy whose political ambitions have been slighted will start to “cheat” on United Russia and express their fealty to the Front. This will mark the beginning of the party’s end.

The fourth and final component of the ARPF is made up of those political parties loyal to the Kremlin. The Front’s central staff includes representatives of the Patriots of Russia Party (with Nadezhda Korneyeva as its deputy chairman) and the Rodina (Motherland) Party (chaired by Alexey Zhuravlev). This is the same Rodina that, when headed by Dmitri Rogozin, escaped from the Kremlin’s control. Their participation in the ARPF is crucial, feeding the image of a symbolic coalition of pro-Putin forces that imitates a virtual Congress of People’s Deputies.

The transformation of the ARPF into a movement is the regime’s reaction to the demolition of key government institutions, the erosion of confidence regarding these institutions, and deep-seated shifts in the public mind. The Russian people are sick and tired of Putin’s players. However, this is not just a reaction—the regime has admitted its inability to create sufficiently legal government bodies and to found political institutions that would not discredit the government by the mere fact of their existence. The Putin regime used to be called an imitation of democracy. This expression is now out of date. The current Russian regime has become an imitation of an imitation, and the deeper the rifts in society, the more aggressively the government will try to hold it together by propaganda and bureaucracy “braces,” and the larger the political explosion will be when those “braces” snap.