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The Many Faces of the Russian Party System

We in Europe Elects classify parties based on their affiliation to European Parliament groups, and in our partners that cover the rest of the world they do so by ideology. However, in the case of Russia, neither of these formats properly demonstrate the nature of the Russian party political system, and with the Russian Duma elections coming up, we felt it was important to explain the realities of the Russian political system. To properly understand how political parties in Russia interact with the regime, state, and politics, we have to first explore what kind of regime Russia actually is.

While much media likes to focus on the centrality of President Vladimir Putin of the governing United Russia party (YeR~ EPP|ECR|ID) in the modern regime of Russia, that misses the wood for the trees. Regardless of Putin being a major element in the politics of the country, his governance is reliant on other factors: the wealthy business magnets called Oligarchs, the cadre of former Security Service & Armed Forces personnel called ‘Siloviki’, the captive media owned by individuals tied to the government, and the central political party United Russia.

YeR, while a dominant party, commands nothing near the old influence of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (KPSS-*). It instead acts as a mechanism for the regime to maintain political control by centralising its support into one body, and rewarding members of said body with low-level corruption and kickback deals. Yet the influence of the Kremlin on political parties does not stop with the hegemonic political party. This is where we see the other forms of party organisation within Russia.

The first of the four-fold formation are the ‘Systemic Allies’ of YeR and the governing regime. The YeR does not stand alone as a political party, but exists in an alliance continuing other political parties, business interest groups, civil society organisations, and trade unions called the All Russian People’s Front (ONF~LEFT|S&D|EPP|ECR|ID). This grouping contains YeR  and smaller parties called A Just Russia (SRPZP~S&D|LEFT), New People, (NL-*), and Rodina (~ ID). These parties are formally considered to support the current government, the presidency of Vladimir Putin, and more generally the policy of the Kremlin.

The parties themselves cover elements of the political spectrum not normally covered by the National-Conservative YeR: SRPZP describes itself as a socialist party, NL as a reformist centre-right party, and Rodina is a nationalist outfit. All exist to directly support the government, just from different ideological perspectives. 

Next comes the ‘Systemic Opposition’. This is a slightly older designation and describes the parties that have existed in nominal opposition to the governing YeR, including undertaking protests against them. The parties present themselves in opposition to the Putin government but in reality do not do anything that would openly and decisively threaten the regime. As such, they are considered a part of the system themselves.

The two parties that currently fit this designation are the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF~LEFT) and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR~NI). Though the latter’s name is rather misleading, as the party is neither liberal nor democratic in vouching for monarchism and social conservatism. While the KPRF has started to move into more direct opposition of the regime, even incurring retribution in the form of candidates denied an opportunity to run in 2021 elections of national parliament, LDPR on a national basis have actually moved into a position of official support of the current YeR-aligned Prime Minister. Still, LDPR’s regional party officers oppose the Putinite regime, as evidenced by the Khabarovsk affair.

Then we get to the so-called ‘Paper Parties’, named because they mostly exist ‘only on paper’. These are parties often supported and financed by the Kremlin to either siphon votes from the main opposition, or to give a safe—for the regime—means of dissent for specific ideological and sectoral groups. They often directly endorse Vladimir Putin in presidential races, and mostly operate on a specific issue: Zelyonyye (*) are a Green Party, RPPSS (*) are a pensioners’ interest party, and Rosta (*) is a political grouping founded by an economic advisor of the Kremlin who supports more liberal economic policies. They help project the pretence of political plurality, all the while ensuring that dissent or differing ideological views do not harm the government.

Finally we have the ‘Nonsystemic Opposition’. These are parties or civil society groups that oppose the existing regime vocally, focusing on civil society activism and changing the state of affairs outside institutions. Their greatest success thus far have been during the 2011-2013 Bolotnaya Protests, caused by the reported fraud of the 2011 national parliament elections, which saw the largest protests of post-soviet Russian history. Traditionally this camp of nonsystemic opposition has included Yabloko (RE), a liberal political party founded by dissidents of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party right after democratisation; Levity Front (LEFT|S&D), a civil society alliance of socialist & communist forces that helps organise protests, meetings, and general political action; and the various parties & organisations of the jailed dissident Alexei Navalny (*).

While not commanding much public support on the ground, they are at the forefront of organised Russian civil society activism, especially during the recent wave of dissent starting in 2017. As protests have arisen over internet freedom, pension reforms, corruption, annulment of local elections, and ecological issues, the nonsystemic opposition has been able to coax the systemic opposition into positions opposing the central regime more openly and directly.

As such, we at Europe Elects label the parties of Russia in its website according to how they support the current regime of Vladimir Putin, to help better reflect this reality of Russian partisan politics. While this isn’t the usual form of our preëlection coverage, we felt it was important to explain in detail the nature of the party system there, and give our audience a more contextual view. Still, it appears the coming Duma elections of national parliament will shift the lines of these groups yet again, although how, only time will tell.

Follow along our coverage of the Russian parliamentary elections in our live blog.

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