Delegates at United Russia’s 9th Congress voted unanimously to make Putin its party chairman. Putin accepted. Surprise, surprise. This possibility has been buzzing around the Russian media for a few weeks now. And in one fail swoop, what was thought to merely be a shell of a political party, has gained importance. Clearly Putin’s “election” to Party leader shows that United Russia is nothing without him.
That of course raises the issue of whether a nothing party like United Russia will actually give Putin something. As Konstantin Sonin noted in the Moscow Times, leading United Russia wouldn’t necessarily give Putin any guarantee over controlling the government. “The party has nothing to offer Putin in his struggle for power,” says Sonin. Indeed, political parties mean little real political power in Russia, even well connected behemoths like United Russia. Sonin continues:
In reality, United Russia’s 300-plus State Duma deputies are ready to give their allegiances not to the party leadership or to Putin personally, but to whomever they believe will be the country’s next leader. If they are convinced that Dmitry Medvedev has ultimately taken hold of central authority, then he will be the one who is able to control the Duma.
The chairman position gives Putin virtually unlimited power within UR. Putin will have the power to appoint party leaders and suspend their powers, and override any party decision expect for those adopted at congresses. His removal is only possible with a 2/3 congressional vote.
If Putin can be taken at his word, he has plans for United Russia. In his address to the Congress he stated that the party of Power needed to “reform itself become more open for discussion and for taking into account the opinion of the electorate, it must be de-bureaucratized completely, cleared of casual people pursuing exclusively their own material gains.” Look out, there’s a new sheriff in town.
Plans have already been set in motion for the recognition of internal factions. Three “clubs” have been created within United Russia to represent its right, center, and left. There is the Center of Social Conservative Policy, headed by Andrei Isaev, the liberal-conservative “November 4th” club led by Vladimir Pligin, and the State-patriotic club led by Irina Yarovaya. Whether these clubs will actually mean anything in terms of inter-party dialog remains to be seen.
Putin’s chief task, if he chooses to take it, will be to rid the party of what he calls “corrupt people.” A task easier said than done. Historically, attempts to clean up party corruption have horribly failed. Often the anti-bureaucratic campaigns, purges, and even arrests within the Communist Party created more corruption. And like the Communist Party of the past, United Russia seems allergic to any real cracking down on its corrupt members. Last week, the United Russia dominated Duma rejected a bill which would require deputies to declare the incomes and property of their relatives up to three years after leaving office. Hiding wealth and property in the names of family members is a common, albeit crude way, of hiding corruption.
Basically, if Putin actually decides to lead United Russia, he’s going to have his hands full. Just because he is the almighty Putin doesn’t mean he will be successful.
One should note that Medvedev was invited to join UR, but he declined. “Certainly United Russia is a party of my like-minded fellows, but I believe my membership in the party premature,” Medvedev stated. “I believe that after my election to the presidential post it would be more correct to remain a non-partisan.” Yeah, non-partisan in form, but not in content.