Russias party system was extremely fragmented in the 1990s, with electoral volatility at an all time high and large numbers of politicians who achieved victory without party affiliation (Gel’man 2008, 913-914). As Russia’s system of politics matured and moved towards stronger parties, which political scientists consider indispensable for democracy (Gel’man 2008, 915), Russia has become more and more authoritarian. The Kremlin has increasingly turned to political parties to maintain its power, a very rational choice given that party-based authoritarian regimes last much longer than personalist and military ones (Gel’man 2008, 917).
In today’s Russian system only four parties are represented in national politics: United Russia, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, A Just Russia, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. Of these, only the Communist Party was not created by the Kremlin itself; United Russia is the chosen ruling party and LDPR and Just Russia were created and maintained as satellite parties of the Kremlin. Vladimir Rzyhkov, a former Duma deputy, called this situation a “’a Dresden party system,’ openly referring to the experience of East Germany under the GDR’s communist regime, which was familiar to Vladimir Putin during his KGB service in the 1980s… However, party-based authoritarianism in the GDR was probably one of the most repressive regimes in Eastern Europe” (Gel’man 2008, 927-928).
United Russia was created from a merger of Fatherland-All Russia, a group of party substitutes that had threatened the Kremlin, with Unity, the Kremlin’s own party, in 2002 (Hale 2010, 93). The United Russia party does not have a clear ideological basis. It has kept its position very vague on major policy issues During the 2007 election, UR’s strategy was to endorse Putin’s plan, without getting into specifics as to what that plan actually was (Gel’man 2008, 921). United Russia, led by Putin, has made sweeping changes to the nature of Russian elections in order to secure its position as a permanent ruling party. Changing the threshold for proportional representation voting from five to seven percent, moving to a purely PR system, creating party registration requirements, prohibiting coalitions of parties from running together on the party list, and eliminating the election of regional governors were all moves calculated to ensure that United Russia would dominate all significant aspects of government (Hale 2010, 94 & Gel’man 2008, 919). United Russia itself is a puppet party created to legitimize the autocratic rule of the Kremlin; Kremlin officials control all strategic decision-making of the party (Gel’man 2008, 920). United Russia has also made ties to political parties in other nations; one specific example is its alliance with the Democratic Party of Moldova in September 2010 (Strategic Forecasting, 2010).
The Liberal Democratic Party of Russia is a satellite party, believed by some to have been created by the KGB to discredit democratic principles (Hale 2010, 89). It relies on corporate donations and on the protest vote of poor young men. Ideologically it is a strongly nationalist and populist party. The LDPR has been very loyal to the Kremlin, forcing through governmental policy proposals and blocking an attempt to impeach the president in 1999. Its main purpose now is to cripple opposition parties through negative campaigning (Gel’man 2008, 924).
A Just Russia is another satellite party created by the Kremlin. It was merged from the Pensioner’s Party, the Party of Life and Motherland (Gel’man 2008, 923) and was intended to bleed left-wing votes from the Communist Party (Hale 2010, 96); splitting the Communist vote in this fashion has crippled the opposition. It employs strongly socialist rhetoric (Gel’man 2008, 923).
The Communist Party of the Russian Federation is a veteran party and the only party that can truly be considered independent of the Kremlin’s control. It is not a direct continuation of the soviet-era Communist Party; it has embraced nationalism to get support from hard-line nationals as well as former communists (Hale 2010, 85). It is the “primary source of political competition” to united Russia (Hale 2010, 87). It has been well-targeted by the Kremlin; it loses votes on the right to LDPR and on the left to Just Russia. As an opposition party it is not very relevant, because even “all parties other than UR acting together do not have enough potential to form a meaningful alternative to it” (Gel’man 2008, 914).
Russia is an authoritarian state that uses political parties as a means to legitimize its rule, and its experience is not unique. Its multi-party competition is an illusion; like communist Poland and East Germany, it created “loyal peasant and Christian parties… as channels of political control over targeted social milieus” (Gel’man 2008, 924). Now that the Kremlin has solidified its position, it is unlikely that the balance of power in Russia will change in the near future.
Gel’man, Vladimir. 2008. “Party Politics in Russia: From Competition to Hierarchy.” Europe-Asia Studies, August. 913-930. International Security & Counter Terrorism Reference Center, EBSCOhost (accessed January 24, 2011).
Hale, Henry. 2010. “Russia’s Political Parties and their Substitutes.” Developments in Russian Politics 7. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Strategic Forecasting. 2010. An Agreement Between Russian, Moldovan Political Parties. September 16. Email subscription.