20 years under Putin: a timeline

In February, Vladimir Putin signed a new law on elections to the State Duma. By once again changing the rules of the game, the Kremlin is attempting to control the new political reality. However, according to political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, these tactics cannot guarantee everlasting electoral success.



The liberal revisions of the electoral laws passed by the Kremlin at the peak of the late 2011 and early 2012 protest movement are in operation in today’s Russia. At the time, in addition to restoring direct gubernatorial elections, the government also allowed the pluralization of the party system. In early 2012, there were only seven registered parties in Russia, four of which were parliamentary ones. Today, the number of parties has reached 77. However, there has been no increase in competition among parties. In order to prevent such competition from developing, the Kremlin went to great lengths.

The current regime uses an array of instruments to prevent the real opposition from succeeding in elections. For instance, dozens of “spoiler” parties have been created. The government can meet with the leaders of these parties in the Kremlin, listen to their proposals, and invite them to State Duma meetings without worrying about them causing any trouble. In most cases, these parties are built around a nobody, surrounded by a couple of his or her political consultants.

In order to understand the meaning of the new electoral reforms, it is important to note that the majority of the parties created in the last two years are loyal to the government. The Kremlin successfully created or facilitated the creation of both right-wing (e.g., the Right Cause Party) and left-wing “patriotic” parties (e.g., the Patriots of Russia Party). The two best-known party brands—the Motherland Party and the Russian Pensioners’ Party—have been registered by former members of the 2011 federal list of the Right Cause Party, headed by Andrei Dunayev and Andrei Bogdanov. Members of this list are registered as organizing committee chairmen for nine different parties in all, from the Socialist Party to the Monarchist Party. It is clear that the liberalization of the laws on political parties brought with it the old methods of “dirty” party competition. The traditional method of fighting opposition structures by breeding clones will likely be used again.

The process of establishing control over nonparliamentary parties began in 2012. In October 2012, Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin proposed setting up a council of nonparliamentary parties in the lower house of parliament. Almost all involved parties were more or less loyal to the regime, whereas real opposition forces refused to join the council. In March 2013, Vedomosti wrote that First Deputy Kremlin Chief of Staff Vyacheslav Volodin was planning to hold weekly election meetings with representatives of new parties. These meetings created an opportunity for the government to establish relations with political groups that could not yet be considered real political players. The Kremlin uses these meetings to give lectures and instructions. In turn, these meetings give the parties an opportunity to get close to the government and render it a service. Such an interaction has little to do with real dialogue between the government and the opposition—it is merely a way for the government to exert control over the electoral process. However, these meetings help create an illusion of the “liberalization of elections” and of the Kremlin’s willingness to reduce United Russia representation in elected bodies.

The majority of the nonparliamentary parties that are prepared to “consult” with the Kremlin were created by spin doctor Andrei Bogdanov and his colleagues. These “straight players” are being granted another privilege—that of meeting directly with President Vladimir Putin. The last such meeting was held in November 2013. As Putin’s press secretary Dmitri Peskov told Nezavisimaya Gazeta, these meetings include “the so-called small parties that did not get into the Russian parliament and that are behind the parliamentary parties in the number of votes received. . . . These are the parties that are in the next echelon after the parliamentary parties in terms of their potential.”

The way the Kremlin divides parties into different “echelons” becomes clear when one examines the list of key party players who attended the November 2013 meeting. Leaders of both new and old nonparliamentary parties were present, including Sergei Mitrokhin from the Yabloko Party, Vladimir Ryzhkov from the Republican Party of Russia–People’s Freedom Party (RPR–PARNAS) (his colleagues Boris Nemtsov and Mikhail Kasyanov refused to meet with the president), Mikhail Prokhorov from Civic Platform, Gennady Semigin from the Patriots of Russia Party, Igor Zotov from the Pensioners’ Party, Maxim Suraykin from Communists of Russia, Alexey Zhuravlev from the restored Motherland Party, and Vyacheslav Maratkanov from the Right Cause Party.

According to political analyst Alexander Kynev, the State Duma has adopted the worst electoral legislation in modern Russia: although the privileged category has been somewhat expanded, the registration system virtually prohibits the participation of the rest of the parties.

Five parties on this list have in practice assumed the role of “spoilers” loyal to the regime. Civic Platform represents the moderate systemic opposition, Yabloko has to a large extent lost its electoral base, and the leaders of RPR-PARNAS are divided by disagreements. Considering it wiser to keep in contact with the regime, Vladimir Ryzhkov, whose political interests lie in Altai, where gubernatorial elections are soon to be held, quit RPR-PARNAS on February 8. His departure may be viewed as a tactical success of the presidential administration, which is interested in dividing the liberals.

This year, the Kremlin intends to invite nonparliamentary parties, that is, according to Izvestia, “parties that are not represented in parliament but have their representatives in regional legislatures and municipalities,” to participate in personnel courses. Among those invited are Civic Platform, Communists of Russia, Right Cause, Patriots of Russia, RPR-PARNAS, Motherland, the Russian Party of Pensioners for Justice, and Yabloko. Of these parties, only RPR-PARNAS and Civic Platform can be considered real opposition parties (and the latter one only with reservations). RPR-PARNAS will certainly refuse to participate in the courses.

By forcing the real opposition to compete with spoilers and other mini-parties, the names of which confuse voters, the Kremlin embraces these essentially thuggish methods. Even though the procedure of political party registration has technically been simplified, in practice, the use of administrative resources complicates the registration process to the maximum. For instance, Bogdanov registered a party under the name of People’s Alliance, although Alexei Navalny had earlier chosen this name for his party. As a result, Navalny had to change his party’s name to the Party of Progress. This is the name under which his party was ultimately registered.

Russia’s new electoral reforms are directed at preventing “unwelcome” parties from participating in elections. According to the latest amendments, the following groups will be able to take part in elections: parliamentary parties, parties that have achieved at least 3 percent of the vote in the most recent parliamentary elections, and parties that have representatives in at least one regional legislature. RPR-PARNAS, Motherland, the Russian Party of Pensioners for Justice, Right Cause, Patriots of Russia, and Communists of Russia fall into the latter category.

These parties will find it easy to gain ballot access both in the party lists segment and in single-member districts. Other parties will have to collect 200,000 voter signatures, and each of their candidates from single-member districts will have to collect signatures from 3 percent of the voters in the district. Experience has proven that electoral commissions know how to speedily disqualify parties from participating in elections on the grounds of submitting “flawed” signature sheets.

According to political analyst Alexander Kynev, the State Duma has adopted the worst electoral legislation in modern Russia: although the privileged category has been somewhat expanded, the registration system virtually prohibits the participation of the rest of the parties. Kynev argues that it is impossible for candidates from single-member districts to honestly collect around 14,000 signatures, or 3 percent of an average 450,000-voter district (until 2003, candidates only had to collect signatures from 1 percent of the district’s voters). The list of privileged parties is already composed to a large extent of spoiler parties, and the law itself takes the country back to the political management style of the 2000s.

The Kremlin is evidently trying to secure itself against a new setback in United Russia’s poll standings by encouraging the appearance of a large number of political parties, of which only a few will stand a chance of gaining a seat in parliament. In the 2016 parliamentary elections, the regime will rely on candidates from single-member districts, who, in order to avoid the “crooks and thieves” label, will participate in elections as independent candidates. Real opposition parties and their candidates, on the other hand, will find it very difficult to obtain the right to take part in the elections. No matter how well the preparatory work has been conducted, any opposition party and its candidates from single-member districts can be disqualified from participation for paperwork errors. Such top-down management of parties can produce results, but only provided that the government can dominate administrative resources and that the decline in the ruling party’s poll standings is not critical. Otherwise, the Kremlin’s new rules of the game may backfire.