It's been a bad two years for Russia's political parties. The ruling United Russia lists from scandal to scandal, as high profile members are implicated in everything from plagiarising their college dissertations, to drunkenly delaying airplanes, to conspiring to shoot their political rivals with surface-to-air missiles. Vladimir Zhirinovsky's LDPR looks increasingly defensive, as “nationalist democrats” like Alexey Navalny gain clout and experience. Meanwhile, the Communists wage a losing war against demography, as their base (elderly pensioners nostalgic for the glory days of Brezhnev) dies off.
All of these factors should have been an opportunity for Russia's third biggest political party, A Just Russia, to build on its success in the 2011 Duma elections. Instead Nikolai Levichev, who up until last weekend was the party's Chairman, took a miserable 2.85% of the vote in the September mayoral elections in Moscow. The party has always been a motley crew of nationalists, communists, erstwhile liberals, and social democrats, stitched together back in 2006 from a variety of ailing Kremlin-backed political projects. In recent weeks however, the fissures in the party have been coming to the fore as prominent members such as Oksana Dmitrieva and Ilya Ponоmarev have clashed with the party’s leadership. Dmitrieva represents the party’s more anti-Kremlin wing, which has been increasingly at odds with the party's status as Putin's “loyal opposition.”
This tension came to a head аt the party’s conference on the weekend of October 26-27, 2013, as Dmitrieva’s faction attempted to oust Levichev. Though ultimately unsuccessful, the attempt demonstrated the growing dissent among the party’s rank and file, with Dmitrieva gaining the votes of approximately one third of the party’s 439 delegates.
Much of the conference focused on dissecting the party’s disastrous showing in mayoral election and debating what its relationship to the “non-systemic opposition” should be. Levichev claimed [ru] that the non-systemic opposition “could not present any threat to the authorities” and “could not present a coherent program.” Anxious to excuse his own poor showing against this very same non-threatening opposition, Levichev declared at the conference that Navalny and his campaign were “a Kremlin project, curated by the security services with krysha from law enforcement agencies.” Elena Mizulina, author of Russia’s (in)famous “Gay Propaganda” law, claimed the party required more discipline and unity, if it is to compete with Navalny.
Many found Levichev's assertions and prevarication bizarre or even laughable. Alexander Zalessky [ru], a member of the Opposition “Party of the 5th of December,” joked on Twitter that the origins of Levichev's own party were hardly free from Kremlin intervention.
Начали Справедливую Россию как кремлёвский проект – так она им и останется, не изменить. Дмитрий @gudkovd, вам об этом говорили много раз.
— залесский (@igiss) October 27, 2013
A Just Russia was started as a Kremlin project—and it's stayed one, without any change. Dmitri @gudkovd has spoken about this many times.
Dmitri Gudkov was forced out of A Just Russia in March 2013, after refusing to stop associating with the oppositionist Left Front. Ilya Yashin, a prominent member of Russian non-systemic opposition, was similarly nonplussed.
Левичев на съезде СР не согласился с тем, что его последнее место на выборах мэра Мск это неудача, и раскритиковал своих критиков. #facepalm
— Илья Яшин (@IlyaYashin) October 26, 2013
At the Just Russia conference, Levichev disagreed that his coming last in the Moscow mayoral elections was unsuccessful and criticised his critics. #facepalm
Aleksei Knedlyakovsky [ru], an anti-Kremlin blogger and friend of the controversial punk rock band Pussy Riot, had this to say.
Когда читаешь новости про съезд СР, на ум приходят лишь банка с пауками, жабы и гадюки.
— Повар Войны (@noliquid) October 27, 2013
When you read the news about the Just Russia conference, you envision a can of spiders, toads, and vipers.
Not everyone agreed that A Just Russia were wrong to position themselves against Navalny. In a Facebook post, Ekaterina Vinokurikova [ru], a reporter at the Yekaterinburg newsportal Znak.com [ru], argued that the party was better off following its current course.
Во-первых, СР себя позиционировала как “партию второго выбора” – ту, которая на участке собирает голоса неопределившихся. Условно говоря – шел голосовать за кого угодно, кроме ЕР, а за коммунистов рука не поднялась. Есть в тех же городах большая группа людей, для которых ЕР является неприемлемой, но тот же Навальный слишком радикальным.
First of all, A Just Russia has positioned itself as “the second choice party,” which depends on the votes of the undecided. Those who, relatively speaking, go and vote for anyone they want, apart from United Russia, but who won't go for the Communists. In the cities, there are big groups of people who consider United Russia to be unacceptable, but also think Navalny is too radical.
Vinokurova predicted that Just Russia's anti-Kremlin faction would soon leave the party altogether. Indeed, she didn't have to wait long until the defection of one of the party's most prominent Duma deputies, Ilya Ponomarev, who announced his departure on October 30.
A Just Russia was designed as a Kremlin project to keep nationalists and social democrats under the Kremlin’s “big tent,” granting the illusion of multi-party parliamentary democracy, thereby preventing a genuine opposition from wrecking things in the Duma. Despite this, the party has contained some of Duma's most vocal critics of United Russia, like Dmitry Gudkov and Ilya Ponomarev.
A Just Russia benefitted from the protest vote in December 2011, but is unlikely to see a repeat of that again. (Its candidate in the March 2012 presidential election, Sergey Mironov, finished last in the polls with less than four percent.) If the party wants to have a fighting chance and maintain any semblance of relevance in future elections, it will have to become a more convincing alternative to United Russia. At its conference last weekend, however, this priority was muddled in internal squabbling. Rather than address the future, party members are too busy fighting each other and attacking Alexey Navalny, a man whose July 2013 felony conviction now bars him from running for elected office.