Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The Origins of United Russia and the Putin Presidency: The Role of Contingency in Party-System Development

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The Origins of United Russia and the Putin Presidency: The Role of Contingency in Party-System Development

Article excerpt

Social science has generated an enormous amount of literature on the origins of political party systems. In explaining the particular constellation of parties present in a given country, almost all theoretical work stresses the importance of systemic, structural, or deeply-rooted historical factors.1 While the development of social science theory certainly benefits from the focus on such enduring influences, a smaller set of literature indicates that we must not lose sight of the critical role that chance plays in politics.2 The same is true for the origins of political party systems.

This claim is illustrated by the case of the United Russia Party, which burst onto the political scene with a strong second-place showing in the late 1999 elections to Russia's parliament (Duma), and then won a stunning majority in the 2003 elections. Most accounts have treated United Russia as simply the next in a succession of Kremlin-based "parties of power," including Russia's Choice (1993) and Our Home is Russia (1995), both groomed from the start primarily to win large delegations that provide support for the president to pass legislation.3 The present analysis, focusing on United Russia's origin as the Unity Bloc in 1999, casts the party in a somewhat different light. When we train our attention on the party's beginnings rather than on what it wound up becoming, we find that Unity was a profoundly different animal from Our Home and Russia's Choice. Unlike these parties of power, Unity's chief aim was not to provide representation for the president in parliament but to be a decoy in the war to defeat the virulently anti-Kremlin Fatherland-All Russia Party, drawing away enough votes for the latter to finish below political expectations. That is, Unity was a presidential election tactic, not primarily a parliamentary party project. Its success in the Duma race, especially shocking to its creators, was a largely unintended, though certainly welcome, side effect. This side effect was itself the result of an extraordinary set of highly contingent events that all converged to bolster Unity's fortunes. In fact, only after the Kremlin realized that it had been quite lucky to defeat its presidential rivals in Fatherland-All Russia and that Unity had been key to its success in doing so, did Kremlin forces begin to turn Unity into what they hoped would be an enduring, well-developed political party to represent presidential interests across the land-United Russia. A highly contingent campaign tactic and a congeries of unusual events wound up unexpectedly producing one of the two major parties that defined Russia's party system from 1999 into the next decade.

The Challenger: Fatherland-All Russia

Once Our Home is Russia leader Viktor Chernomyrdin was fired in early 1998 from his role as prime minister, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov seized the initiative to try and build an opposition party based on the ruins of Chernomyrdin's coalition of regional leaders (here called "governors" for simplicity's sake) and other political notables known as the Our Home is Russia Party.4 Among provincial leaders, Luzhkov was extraordinarily well positioned to initiate such an effort, possessing unparalleled stocks of administrative capital. Naturally, these began with his job as the leader of Russia's political and economic capital, Moscow, a post that brought high visibility and national power to its occupant, even during Soviet times.5

Upon becoming mayor in 1992, Luzhkov wasted no time consolidating a wrestler's grip on the city's enormous economy. he proved to be a master of managing the post-Soviet transition, effectively turning Russia's most diverse and complex economy into what Orttung has categorized as a "single-company town" dominated by the Sistema Group that his city of Moscow founded.6 Through the privatization process and other maneuvers, Sistema acquired more than one hundred companies during the 1990s, including several banks, electronics firms, media outlets, the Moscow city telephone system, the Rosno insurance group, and ventures like Intourist and the glistening underground Manezh Mall, which were geared largely to Moscow's tourism industry. …

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