Une agence de l'Ue

State Duma elections 2011 and the marginal role of Russian parties. Part 2

14 November 2011

Aleksandr Kynev

Even a superficial look at the histories of Russian political parties reveals a high degree of instability as well as vagueness when it comes to their political programmes. This raises questions about the state of the Russian party system and the value parties bring to the political process in Russia.

Only weeks away from the parliamentary elections, this paper provides an overview of the seven parties which have been registered to compete in the 5th Duma elections. But first it examines some of the specificities of the Russian party system and the relationship between parties and the Russian state in order to give the reader a better understanding of the often arbitrary and seemingly erratic developments in Russian party politics.


The Russian party system

Compared to their Western counterparts, Russian political parties have evolved ‘in reverse order’ in the past two decades: while in Western democracies party legislation follows the formation of political parties, in Russia the formation of political parties follows the legislation. In other words the state defines the rules, and only those parties corresponding to these rules have a chance to exist and survive in the Russian political system. In the past ten years the Russian state has exploited this asymmetric relationship to expand its control over political parties by considerably tightening the laws regulating their existence. In this context it is more essential for political parties to fulfil formal criteria and requirements imposed by the state than to develop the substance of their political programmes.

The media have coined the terms ‘systemic’ and ‘non-systemic’ to distinguish between parties which are registered – and thus recognised by the state – and parties lingering in an institutional limbo because the state refuses to recognise them. This distinction applies to opposition parties as well. Hence, while for instance the CPRF and Just Russia are ‘systemic’ opposition parties, PARNAS has been denied registration for the Duma elections and, consequently, remains stuck in a political no-man’s-land.

To avoid misunderstandings it should be noted that most of the so-called non-systemic parties do not aim at bringing about any fundamental change of the political system as such. In many cases these parties have tried to achieve legal recognition, but have repeatedly been rebuffed by the state bureaucracy.

The asymmetric dependence of political parties on the state has serious implications. Not only does it mean that parties are in a weak position in the political process, but it also means that they face great difficulties in developing their political platforms and profiles. Many political actors join parties solely to be able to run for office, in essence pursuing their individual interests, thus further undermining the substantial development of those parties’ programmes. Moreover, individuals very often migrate from formally left-wing to formally right-wing parties – and back. They do not choose parties on the basis of their political orientation. Rather, it is the strength and weakness of different parties in a given regional context which makes individual actors ‘pick’ them to pursue their own goals.

This leads to a situation where one party can at the same time take different, even contradictory positions in different regions, depending on the respective context and local candidates. Arbitrary party politics is in turn mirrored by the attitude of the Russian ‘pragmatic voter’ who easily switches from one party to another regardless of their alleged political profile.

The parties which will be presented in the following section are ‘systemic’ pro-government and opposition parties. With the exception of the three parties which were founded in the 1990s – the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDRP), the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) and Yabloko – they have come into being and acquired their current form with the backing of the Kremlin to occupy a political niche and cater to the interests of the ruling elite.


United Russia – the Party of Power

The formation of United Russia began with the merger in 2001 of the previously competing Duma factions of Unity (otherwise known as ‘Medved’– ‘The Bear’), a centre-right party headed by Sergey Shoigu, and Fatherland-All Russia, a centre-left bloc led by Evgeny Primakov and Yuri Luzhkov. The party obtained its current name in 2003. For the 2003 Duma elections United Russia campaigned under the slogan ‘Together with the President!’, thus indicating its close links with the Putin administration. After the elections the United Russia faction quickly gained a constitutional majority thanks to the mass migration of independent MPs and members of other parties.

Vladimir Putin himself headed the United Russia list for the 2007 Duma elections. The election programme was entitled ‘Putin’s Plan: a worthy future for a great country’.  In the wake of the parliamentary elections, United Russia put forward Dmitri Medvedev as a candidate and in 2008 elected Vladimir Putin its chairman. It is worth pointing out that, regardless of their prominent positions within the party hierarchy, neither Putin nor Medvedev are formally members of United Russia.

Throughout the early 2000s United Russia promoted values such as ‘sovereign democracy’ and ‘Russian conservatism’. In the past four years, however, the party has also had to integrate some of the political statements of President Dmitri Medvedev which were considerably more liberal and reform-oriented. Ambivalent discourses and developments are also reflected in the process of internal differentiation that United Russia has been going through during the second half of the past decade. This differentiation is expressed, inter alia, in the creation of several thematic ‘clubs’ such as the Centre for Socio-Conservative Policy, the Liberal-Conservative Club, or the Government-Patriotic Club. However these clubs do little to clarify what the party really stands for.

At the pre-election party convention in September 2011 President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin announced that they were to swap jobs. While Putin will run for the presidency and abstain from participating in the Duma elections, Medvedev has taken over as United Russia’s frontrunner for the Duma elections, and is due to be appointed Prime Minister in 2012.

The United Russia party list for the December Duma elections is strongly dominated by the executive power. It contains 165 acting MPs, 8 members of the federal government, 54 governors and a large number of representatives of regional and local administrations.Moreover it contains numerous names which apparently symbolise ‘national achievements’ and patriotism, such as those of athletes or cosmonauts. The number of representatives of the pro-Kremlin youth movements has increased. However, the Nashi (‘Our’) movement has apparently been replaced by an organisation called Youth Guard of United Russia and various youth parliaments and analogous structures.


The Communist party of the Russian Federation (CPRF)

The CPRF is the successor of the Communist Party of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR). Gennady Zyuganov has been the party leader ever since its inception. Traditionally the CPRF is one of the strongest political parties in Russia, but its share of votes has been continuously declining over the past 20 years. Partly in reaction to that, an internal dispute in 2004 led to structural changes and a significant reduction of the average age among the party’s leadership. Since then, the CPRF has worked to modernise its electoral campaigns and to actively use the internet to reach out to potential constituencies of voters. Support for the party has since increased in large cities but decreased in rural areas.

In its programme (entitled ‘The majority is destined to win. Return the Motherland stolen from us!’), the CPRF promotes a stronger role of the state in the political and social sphere and the nationalisation of mineral resources and other raw materials. It calls for a re-appraisal of Russia’s foreign policy posture, the creation of a ‘Union of Brotherhood’ on the territory of the former Soviet Union, a stronger role for the United Nations and the dissolution of NATO. The CPRF demands ‘genuine democratisation’ of the Russian political system including a stronger role for the parliament, the restoration of regional elections, and the confiscation of property acquired through corruption. It tasks itself with representing the ‘patriotic majority’ of the population in the parliament and with making sure that executive power is being exercised for the sake of the common good.


The Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR)

Formally the LDPR is the oldest party in today’s Russia. It was founded in 1990 as the Liberal-Democratic Party of Soviet Union and was the first party other than the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) ever to be officially registered.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky remains the key political and ideological figure in the party and is also its frontrunner in the 2011 election campaign. The LDPR tends to take ambivalent and oscillating positions, although traditionally it is considered nationalist. For its 2011 campaign the LDPR has adopted the slogan ‘For the Russians!’ and focuses on nationalist ideas and regional trouble spots such as the North Caucasus and the Far East. 

Regardless of its oppositional discourse in public, in the Duma it usually supports the government. The LDPR’s image is shaped by political controversy, aggressive rhetoric, regular media scandals and Zhirinovsky’s occasional physical assaults against political opponents.


Just Russia

Just Russia bases its programme on ‘contemporary, democratic and effective socialism’.[8] It calls for a more vigorous social policy that would guarantee social stability and fight poverty, corruption and United Russia’s monopoly on power. The party is a member of the ‘Socialist International’.

The emergence of Just Russia in 2006 was closely linked to the Kremlin’s decision, around the same time, to liquidate the socialist-patriotic Motherland (Rodina) party. Headed by Dmitry Rogozin and Sergey Glaziev, this party had been created by the Kremlin as an (initially) successful attempt to rein in opposition forces, but soon escaped from the control of the Kremlin technocrats.

In order to be able to remove Rodina from the political stage the Kremlin needed a party that would fill its niche. The small ‘Russian Party for Life’, headed by Federation Council speaker Sergey Mironov, lent itself to this purpose. In the course of 2006 the Party of Life, the Motherland party and the Party of Pensioners merged into Just Russia with Sergey Mironov as its new chairman. Between 2006 and 2008 Just Russia ‘swallowed’ several smaller parties such as the Green Party ‘Zelyenye’, the United Socialist Party of Russia, and the People’s Party. The processes of merger and reorganisation resulted in the departure of prominent former leaders of Rodina.

After some time Just Russia entered into conflict with United Russia and the Presidential Administration. As a result, Sergey Mironov was replaced by Nikolai Levichev as party leader. Governmental pressure and media campaigns against the party have since caused a number of activists to leave Just Russia.


United Russian Democratic Party (Yabloko – ‘Apple’)

The United Russian Democratic Party, ‘Yabloko’, was created in 1995 by its three leaders Gregoriy Yavlinsky, Yuri Boldyrev and Vladimir Lukin.

Yabloko sees itself as being ideologically rooted in social liberalism: ‘Our aim is a society of equal opportunities, based on the principles of social justice and solidarity between the powerful and the weak. This means that the most important condition for establishing a free society in Russia is not only the unleashing of private initiative, but also a well-developed social support system’.[9] Following its defeat in the 2007 elections, the party has been trying to pursue a policy of small steps focusing predominantly on ecological and local residential issues.

Yabloko’s internal organisation is hierarchical and marked by personalised rule. Formally, Sergey Mitrokhin has been the party leader since 2008. However, the party remains very much dominated by Grigory Yavlinsky who is also the frontrunner of the 2011 party list (together with Mitrokhin and 78 year old ecologist Alexey Yablokov). In reaction to this situation, during the past few years many prominent party members have left Yabloko and joined Just Russia or United Russia. Negotiations aimed at persuading Boris Titov, the leader of the organisation Business Russia, to join the 2011 party list did not succeed. Moreover, Yabloko’s campaign suffers from insufficient publicity and the fact that its candidates are not well-known in Russia’s regions.


Russia’s Patriots

Russia’s Patriots base their party programme on what they call ‘Russian patriotism’ or an ‘ideology that is able to unite Russia’s society for achieving common national goals and challenges’. The programme itself contains an eclectic collection of leftist and patriotic slogans.

Party leader, businessman and former member of the CPRF, Gennady Semigin, gained some publicity with an unsuccessful attempt to stage a coup within the CPRF some ten years ago. After his forced departure from the CPRF he forged a coalition of several small parties which in 2005 became the Russia’s Patriots party. Russia’s Patriots often take positions that are supportive of the government. At the regional level it regularly engages in counter-agitation against traditional opponents of United Russia, such as the CPRF and Just Russia.

This pro-governmental stance is also reflected in the 2011 party list which includes a large number of representatives of local and regional administrations.


The Right Cause

The Right Cause labels itself a ‘democratic liberal party’ targeting the Russian middle class. Under the slogan ‘freedom, initiative, responsibility and development’[12] its programme assembles a broad and diverse array of political goals including pension reform, military and social reforms, restoration of regional elections, strengthening of the independence of the judiciary and a pro-European foreign policy.

The party was created in late 2008 with the obvious involvement of the Presidential Administration to be a liberal substitute for the Democratic Party of Russia, the Union of Right Forces (SPS) and the Civil Power party (all dissolved because of financial problems).[13] For the first three years of its existence the Right Cause was neither active nor particularly visible in political life, not least due to internal disputes. In May 2011 the infighting was temporarily brought to an end with the election of billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov as the chairman. Rumour had it that this too happened with the support of the Kremlin.

Prokhorov’s actions and leadership style caused regular scandals in the following months. Many of his decisions, including the reorganisation and purge of the party’s regional branches, were heavily disputed. Prokhorov’s announcement in early September that he was not ruling out his candidacy for the presidency caused another row which ended with his removal and replacement by Andrey Dunaev, who is also the frontrunner of the Just Cause party list. Prokhorov later accused the deputy head of the Presidential Administration, Vladislav Surkov, of having staged a coup against him.

The Moscow rumour mill entertains several different versions of what actually happened in September. One points to the cumulative effect of Prokhorov’s unfortunate decisions and appointments which led to clashes with other party members and with the Kremlin. Another possible explanation for the Kremlin’s decreasing enthusiasm is that, at the time, the decision to include Dimitri Medvedev in United Russia’s party list might already have been taken. This would explain why all of a sudden there was no longer a need to foster an additional ‘pro-presidential’ party project.

In either case the scandal has severely damaged the party. Moreover, the fate of the Right Cause is a perfect example of the degree to which the Russian party system is controlled and manipulated. Political parties are obliged to fulfil the restrictive rules and requirements set up by the state to change from the non-systemic to the systemic level. This gives the state maximum leverage to limit political parties’ room for manoeuvre and undermine the development of genuine opposition. When parties have overcome the hurdle of registration they are subject to even more state control. In this system Russian parties – no matter whether they are ‘systemic’ or ‘non-systemic’ – are doomed to remain weak and amorphous and will therefore continue to contribute little to the diversification and pluralisation of Russian politics.


United Russia


Just Russia



Russia’s Patriots

The Right Cause









Regional branches









Vladimir Putin

Gennady Zyuganov

Nikolay Levichev

Vladimir Zhirinovsky

Sergey Mitrokhin

Gennady Semigin

Andrey Dunaev

2007 Duma


64.3 percent

315 seats

11.57 percent

57 seats

7.74 percent

38 seats

8.14 percent

40 seats

1.59 percent

No seats

0.89 percent

No seats


2003 Duma


37.57 percent

22 seats

12.61 percent

40 seats


11.45 percent

36 seats

4.3 percent

4 seats



1999 Duma



24.29 percent

113 seats


5.58 percent

17 seats

5.93 percent

20 seats



1995 Duma



22.3 percent

157 seats



51 seats

6.89 percent

45 seats




Alexandr Kynev is the head of research department of the Association ‘In Defence of Voters’ Rights’ (GOLOS), Moscow. He is an expert on regional political processes, party and electoral systems in Russia and the CIS. From 1996-2000 he worked for the Russian United Democratic Party Yabloko and the administration of the State Duma. His previous paper ‘State Duma elections 2011 and the marginal role of Russian parties – Part I’ was published in the EUISS Russia Insight series on 16 November 2011.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the EUISS

Translated from the original Russian by Sabine Fischer and Eugene Slonimerov.