- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 23, 2006

NEW YORK — Russians, according to Sergei Mironov, need to learn how to party.

The sober, bearded speaker of the Federation Council, the upper house of Russia’s legislature, isn’t being frivolous. Forming genuine political parties, with real platforms, national organizations and responsible leaders is critical to the health of Russia’s democracy as President Vladimir Putin prepares to step aside in two years, Mr. Mironov said.

In an interview during a U.S. visit this month, Mr. Mironov said he hopes a new center-left political alliance he has helped found will “add a little pepper” to the parliamentary elections next year and the 2008 presidential contest.

His new party hopes to pose a direct challenge to the dominant United Russia party, which holds an overwhelming majority in the State Duma, the lower legislative house. Mr. Mironov and other critics say United Russia, though all-powerful, has no ideology beyond its slavish allegiance to Mr. Putin and the Kremlin.

United Russia is “100 percent devoted to being the party of power,” said Mr. Mironov, speaking through an interpreter in the ornate lobby of New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. “It is good for everybody that United Russia have a real competitor.”

Big hopes for alliance

There has already been controversy in Russia over the bona fides of Mr. Mironov’s new center-left political group, a union of his Party of Life and the Pensioners Party with the far larger Rodina [Motherland] Party, the only member of the alliance to win seats in the Duma elections in 2003.

The party, which has 30 seats in the 450-seat State Duma, in which there are four vacancies at present, currently calls itself “Motherland, Pensioners, Life — A Union of Trust.” Mr. Mironov estimated the new alliance will have about 500,00 members and hopes to emerge as the largest opposition party to United Russia after the 2007 elections. Even so, current opinion polls rate it a long shot, at best, in the upcoming elections.

United Russia won just 37.5 percent of the vote in 2003, but its close association with Mr. Putin has drawn in a number of new members, and it now has a two-thirds majority of 305 seats in the Duma.

Critics say Mr. Mironov’s new party has its own ties to Mr. Putin and the Kremlin, and was created to give the president another power base and co-opt leftist opponents — a charge Mr. Mironov rejects. As speaker of the upper house, Mr. Mironov is third in the government hierarchy behind Mr. Putin and Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkin.

But Russian political analysts and some key United Russia figures accept Mr. Mironov’s central point — that most Russian political parties offer no consistent ideology, no popular base and, thus, no real choice for Russian voters.

Communist base erodes

The one faction that does meet the classic definition of a political party is the Communist Party, which has seen its popular base slowly but inexorably decline since the collapse of the Soviet Union. While benefiting from United Russia’s support, Mr. Putin has consistently declined to join any political faction.

Although the Duma rarely stands up to Mr. Putin on critical issues, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, one of the president’s most powerful aides, has complained that real reform in Russia is hampered by the lack of a “normal right-wing party” for the presidential administration to deal with.

“The programs of a lot of political forces are unclear, their ideologies blurred,” he said in a magazine interview last year. “They don’t have a particular face.”

Even Konstantin I. Kosachev, a leading United Russia lawmaker and chairman of the Duma’s international affairs committee, said being so closely identified with the Kremlin is not healthy for his party, which includes figures from across the political spectrum.

“If our only policy is to support the president, I fear that won’t be enough,” he told The Washington Times last year. He said he was pushing for United Russia to adopt a more center-right, pro-market focus, even if it meant driving some members out of the party.

Kremlin legal hurdles

Mr. Mironov, who has also been considered an ally of Mr. Putin in the past, rejects charges that his new party is a puppet of the Kremlin.

He noted that the party has already had to fight several court battles to win the right to organize and field candidates in regions around the country. The legal hurdles, he said, show the Kremlin’s presidential administration is “quite unnerved” by the challenge presented by his party.

He said the party’s main goal will be to preserve Russia’s social welfare network and protect worker salaries and pensions. He denied the center-left party intends to turn the clock back on free-market reforms under Mr. Putin that have helped the country average more than 6 percent annual growth in the gross domestic product since 2001.

Building genuine, policy-based political parties has proven difficult in Russia and other countries that emerged from the former Soviet Union. Political groups tend to be extensions of executive power, as with United Russia, or to rally round a single dominant personality, as with Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party under populist-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

The country’s leading liberal, pro-Western parties, including Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, have been consistent disappointments at the ballot box, plagued by poor organization, infighting and lack of Kremlin support.

Putin concedes defect

Mr. Putin himself, in a lengthy meeting with Western Russia scholars and journalists this month, acknowledged that Russia “lacks a real multiparty system,” and said such a system would not be in place before he leaves office in two years.

Russian handicappers say that the presidential front-runners right now are two close Putin allies: Mr. Medvedev and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. Neither has strong ties to any existing party, and it is not clear if they will follow Mr. Putin’s example and run as a “nonpartisan” candidate.

Mr. Putin last year backed a plan to change elections for the State Duma, requiring all 450 lawmakers to be chosen from party lists and raising state subsidies to parties running candidates. The changes also raised the hurdle for parties to qualify for seats from 5 percent to 7 percent.

A new poll released last week shows the hurdle that even Mr. Mironov’s combined alliance will face.

An August survey by the Moscow-based Yury Levada Analytical Center gave United 47 percent of the vote heading into the parliamentary elections tentatively set for December 2007, ahead of the Communist Party (15 percent) and Mr. Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democrats (12 percent). The combined new center-left alliance received only 4 percent in the poll.

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