On November 23 in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke at the 19th annual Congress of the United Russia Party, which the organizers declared as the kickoff to Russia’s parliamentary campaign season. Many analysts were listening to the speech with bated breath for some fundamental insight or strategic outlook into the Kremlin’s plans for presidential elections in 2024. Since last year’s elections, there has been intense speculation about the Kremlin’s plans for how it will transition power from Putin to Putin when his current term ends in 2024.
The largest party in Russia, which holds 335 (or roughly 75%) of the 450 seats in the State Duma and is chaired by Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, has suffered record losses. Not only were a third of seats in the Moscow election lost, but support for the party also has dropped to a 10-year low. Many experts were wondering if Putin decided to speak at the Congress in order to realign himself with his former party, after having run for president last year independent of United Russia. Could he transfer some of his political heft and high approval rating to this dying political party and save a sinking ship? It is no secret that United Russia has become a toxic brand to the majority of Russians. There is practically no trust in this party. Its ostensible rivals—the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party, and Fair Russia Party—are also dying, declining along with the satisfaction of Russian people year after year. It is difficult to argue with these facts, but it is more important to understand what conclusions can be drawn.
The interesting thing about Putin’s speech is that his words can be interpreted to mean anything, avoiding concrete plans or ideas, and as a result, they wind up meaning nothing. The text of his speech, sadly, also does not have a target audience: it will not be useful to delegates of the Congress, officials, the Russian people, or even to political experts abroad. It has no message or meaning—it is just a ritual dance. There are still Russian analysts out there who claim that these speeches have a hidden message or meaning. Supposedly, the authorities are talking to the people and elites in a kind of encrypted language of meanings. But in reality, there was no hidden message in this speech. In fact, it had only one clear and straightforward message: “Politics is none of your business. The right people will get specific instructions for further action through the usual government channels; and the rest of the country is to listen, watch and try not to yawn into the camera.”
I compared Putin’s speech at the 19th Congress with his own speech at the previous one. They are not just similar; they are interchangeable. If one of the presidential aides mixed up the texts and let him read last year’s speech, no one would have noticed.
Over the years, United Russia has experienced many challenges: pension reform, regional elections, the Moscow City Duma elections of 2019. Alliance with United Russia created more of a negative reputation then the help it used to be. Therefore, a deep crisis of the “official” party system in Russia is evident. The primary reason for that is not so much the way the systemic parties comported themselves during the election, but rather that this entire arrangement as such has lost any meaning. It was created in the middle of the previous decade when the situation in the country was altogether different. Putin broke with United Russia when he launched his latest presidential bid after being affiliated with the party since 2001, and the candidates endorsed by United Russia lost in almost half of the Moscow districts in the September 2019 parliamentary elections. The September 2018 gubernatorial elections in Russia’s regions produced a crisis for the party, too. But unlike the elections themselves, this crisis is far from being regional. It presents a vivid illustration of the rapidly progressing degradation of the highest echelon of Russia’s system of power, including the office of the country’s president.
Putin recognized the damage done to the party by public perceptions and corruption: “United Russia is a ruling party. Yes, to an extent this is the way it really is. But this does not mean at all that the party fully identifies itself with every official in power or with each level of the executive branch,” he said. “Loudmouths and opportunists who have been clinging to the ruling party status can betray not just the party itself but our country as well,” Putin added. “This has happened more than once in our history, including the most recent one.”
The way United Russia exists today has no political future, no other instruments for electoral victory or sustainability, just as there is no need for them in the current political climate in Russia. It is much more likely that in such a reality the Kremlin is engaged not in a search for a way to transition power down the road, but for exactly the opposite—developing plans for avoiding the transition of power and strengthening the regime with United Russia or without it.
For years, there have been no new faces, no new content, and no change either at the Congress itself or in United Russia. People are tired of the same faces and the same lies. Every year, the party threatens to launch some projects that sound like “help people,” “promote youth,” or “deploy the party facing the people.” Last year, it gave money for the Clean Country and Digital Party projects. This year, it will give to “political multifunctional centers.” I can’t say that all these initiatives are completely pointless: maybe they can help someone somewhere, but they are a cherry on a cardboard cake.
Furthermore, by supporting the myth of Putin’s infallibility, the party has painted itself into a corner. After so many years of funneling all power and authority for all aspects of running the country to the very top of the hierarchy—Putin himself—the party no longer reserves any authority for itself. The actors in the system of government are losing the ability and the will to resolve any issues, at least in the absence of direct involvement by Mr. Putin himself. The disconnect between the Russian government and the people is growing ever larger.