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May 4, 2012 | 12:50 GMT

5 mins read

Managing Russia's New Political Landscape


Russia's recent parliamentary and presidential elections and subsequent large, countrywide protests have demonstrated levels of political competition virtually unprecedented since Vladimir Putin first became president in 1999. In the elections, Putin's ruling United Russia party nearly lost its majority in the parliament and several new parties gained ground.

The emergence of new political parties, decline of United Russia and the Kremlin's less heavy-handed approach to governing the country are already are being felt on the local level, where opposition figures are gaining power. With a number of local elections scheduled for later in 2012, Putin is under pressure to maintain his authority, but his long-term strategy for doing so remains unclear.

The Kremlin no longer controls Russia through a consolidated political party and system, an arrangement termed "managed democracy." Instead, countless political forces ranging from the far left to far right are jockeying for power.

None of these groups is yet large or powerful enough to counter the Kremlin, but they have made the Kremlin uncomfortable over the past five months. In response, the Kremlin has worked on a strategy for managing Russia's new political conditions. Deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin strategist formerly behind managed democracy, has been replaced by Chief of Staff Vyacheslav Volodin.

Volodin has initiated a series of reforms to appease the disjointed Russian opposition. The two largest compromises have been reinstating a law on the direct election of governors and lowering the threshold for the registration of political parties. But in formulating its strategy, the Kremlin has been careful to ensure it maintains control.

Concessions and Reservations

In one concession to the opposition, the Russian Duma passed legislation April 26 restoring direct elections of governors in Russia, a key opposition demand. Governors play a crucial role in Russia. Russia is so large that the Kremlin historically has needed the governors to run their own regions and ensure loyalty to the Kremlin, which lacks the resources to run each region directly. In theory, the direct election of governors — instead of having the Kremlin appoint them — could see the opposition sweeping into the newly competitive positions, breaking the Kremlin's hold on the regions.

The Kremlin put two important conditions on its concession to the opposition. First, candidates must win approval from 5-10 percent of local legislatures and municipal deputies. With the regions still heavily influenced by Russia's ruling party, United Russia, this will weed out many candidates the Kremlin dislikes. Second, the Russian president can "screen" an elected governor, rejecting him if the president deems him unfit. This effectively nullifies the concession, putting the appointment of governors back in the president's hands.

In another concession to the opposition, the Kremlin agreed to lower the threshold for political parties to be able to register. Under the new law, parties need only 500 members to register, a fraction of the previous requirement that parties have 45,000 members spread across 50 percent of the regions. Already, more than 130 political parties from all sides of the political spectrum have applied for registration under the new provision. They include potentially significant opposition groups like Sergei Udaltsov's Left Front, pro-Kremlin parties such as the military- and security-minded Defenders of the Fatherland, and fringe groups like the Party of Love or the Party Against All.

Like the first concession, the lower registration threshold is not likely to threaten Kremlin rule. By lowering the threshold, the Kremlin has opened the way for a flood of political parties. Having so many political parties on tickets will confuse voters and divide the opposition. Though a viable opposition movement still could coalesce given the rise of Udaltsov on the left and of oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov on the right, thus far the Kremlin feels safe from a unified opposition.

Cracks in the System

These illusory concessions coupled with disarray in the political system have led to a new term among political circles in Russia: "managed chaos," a play on Surkov's managed democracy. Thus far under Volodin's guidance, the Kremlin's reaction to the new political reality has consisted of quick fixes. It does not seem to have a long-term strategy on how to maintain control. Stratfor sources say this is because the Kremlin must wait until Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is inaugurated as president next week and until the subsequent Kremlin reshuffling settles out. Either way, this lack of strategy has led to cracks in the current system of managed chaos.

The first consequence of this lack of strategy relates to the future of the ruling United Russia, which has seen its popularity decline since parliamentary elections in 2011. Putin has used United Russia as his primary means of managing his loyalists. With so many new political parties, he needs such an instrument. Now, Putin has stepped down from the party's leadership, nominating outgoing President Dmitri Medvedev to take over the role once more so Putin can focus on the All-Russia People's Front, an umbrella group of political parties, organizations, business groups, labor unions and more. Not only does this give Putin a broader-based organization, but it also leaves Medvedev at the helm of a declining organization, something Stratfor sources say Putin intended. According to rumors in Moscow, Medvedev is so worried about the future of United Russia that he has called on Surkov to draw up a strategy before the party's conference May 26.

These changes — new political parties, loosening Kremlin rule and the decline of United Russia — already are being felt on the local level, where opposition figures are gaining positions. In Moscow, opposition candidates won a third of the open seats in elections to district councils. In another embarrassment for United Russia, opposition candidates won mayoral elections in Chernogolovka, Tolyatti and Yaroslavl. And United Russia candidates are not assured wins in June mayoral elections in Omsk and Krasnayarsk. Additionally, a local crisis in Astrakhan garnered national attention when Moscow protest leaders came to the defense of losing opposition candidate Oleg Shein, who accused the United Russia candidate of winning through voter fraud. Regardless of whether these figures emerging at the mayoral level truly represent opponents of the Kremlin, they do not belong to United Russia.

With numerous local and gubernatorial elections later this year, Putin cannot afford to lose any more ground. But just what long-term strategy Putin and Volodin will adopt after Putin's inauguration and the Kremlin reshuffle remains to be seen.

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