For the first time in the history of elections to the Moscow city parliament and the existence of United Russia, the ruling party has not nominated a single candidate. There are, of course, United Russia members among those running for the capital’s parliament, but they are running as independents. 

United Russia had hoped until the last that it would be represented by some candidates, but the Moscow mayor’s office spoke out against the party officially backing its candidates, persuading the Kremlin that it was better to take part in elections in which nearly 10 percent of the country’s population can vote without the involvement of a party whose ratings are falling. 

And so even Andrei Metelsky, the head of the Moscow branch of United Russia, is running as an independent. The party of the ruling authorities has had to give up an important bastion and distance itself from a key Russian political campaign. It seems that in one region at least, United Russia is surplus to requirements.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin ran as an independent in the last mayoral elections, as do candidates for the city administration, and the world is still turning. The authorities are rejecting the services of their own party, and they remain in power. In Moscow, this process is facilitated by legislation: Moscow City Duma deputies are elected exclusively on the basis of single-member constituencies. In other regions, administrations cannot entirely reject United Russia’s backing of their candidates for legislative assemblies: a proportion of parliamentarians (25 percent to 50 percent) have to be elected by the party list system.

But there are already attempts to dismantle this hurdle too: in the Khabarovsk region, whose governor Sergei Furgal represents the LDPR party, it’s also as if there are no United Russia candidates, as far as ordinary voters are concerned. Candidates are backed and supposedly nominated by the newly created movement Time for Change (though official nomination comes from United Russia). It’s the Time for Change logo and other symbols that will be used in the campaign, and anyone who hasn’t studied the political landscape closely will believe that they are backing candidates who stand for change.

United Russia is also running under an umbrella brand in elections for the Irkutsk city parliament: Mayor Dmitry Berdnikov’s movement Our Irkutsk. (Party lists are not in use in these municipal elections either.) The process of increasing the proportion of single-member candidates—i.e., potential independents from the authorities—in legislative assemblies is also under way. 

Six out of sixteen candidates for regional governor posts have also preferred to run as independents, including the acting governor of St. Petersburg, Alexander Beglov. United Russia’s playing field is shrinking, this year at an accelerated rate. If the Moscow experiment proves successful, it could be applied in other regions, turning the elections into a fully single-member system, which would eliminate the problem of having to be nominated by United Russia under the party list system.

Bleeding candidates fast, United Russia is already ceasing to be the party of the authorities. The party doesn’t fit well into the technocratic-apolitical worldview of the presidential administration’s domestic policy bloc. First Deputy Chief of Staff Sergei Kiriyenko and his subordinates actively employ corporate management practices such as team building, staff competitions, and KPIs, which all of the regional heads are set. Corporations don’t need parties. If the political bloc’s goal is to ensure a majority of deputies who are loyal to the authorities in the legislative assembly, or to have the right person elected as governor, and United Russia is hindering that from happening with its falling ratings, well, it’s nothing personal, it’s just that the party is not on track for meeting the KPI.

Within United Russia, attempts are being made to react to the problem. The party’s leader, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, wrote an article that began with an announcement of possible changes within the party.

“Overall, much has been done. But at the same time, we can feel there is a certain lack of trust,” he wrote. 

“People increasingly feel that their opinion and words aren’t being heard. And real changes aren’t enough. This is clear from the results of the regional elections that were held in September 2010. In regions where candidates and regional branches responded attentively to people’s feedback, where reaction to their requests was swift, we saw convincing victory for United Russia. And in places where reaction was not good enough, people simply didn’t want to turn out to vote. Or they voted against [us]!” asserted the prime minister.

The party’s main problem, in his opinion, is its “interaction with people.”

“We talk too little about what we have done, and don’t make it interesting enough. We’re bad at explaining what we are going to do and why.”

The changes proposed by Medvedev don’t appear to represent salvation from the party’s problems, and above all from their root cause: the fall in ratings. The prime minister says United Russia must talk more about the national projects—a road map for Russia’s strategic development—whose essence and goals are unclear even to many officials. United Russia, in Medvedev’s vision, should become a “range of services” with a center devoted to upholding people’s rights. Party members who behave arrogantly or rudely must be punished, and grants given out for investigative journalism. Medvedev has not, however, written anything about the election campaign or changes in the party’s ideology. 

The authorities are turning down the services of their own party at the elections, yet it’s as though United Russia doesn’t notice, or even simply accepts it. The party brand isn’t needed for the election campaign? OK then, we’ll become a set of useful services instead. United Russia is approaching the role long played by the All-Russia People’s Front, the aborted party of power from the era of former first deputy chief of staff Vyacheslav Volodin.

The People’s Front monitors various things and holds forums and meetings, but its members have no influence on politics. Since the People’s Front project was established by Vladimir Putin personally, the presidential administration daren’t risk closing it down completely. Only those with the keenest interest in politics could tell you the names of the co-chairs of the People’s Front, never mind its regional leaders. 

Focusing on services and human rights will turn United Russia into activists loyal to the authorities, whom society is unlikely to welcome with open arms, since people still consider United Russia to be representatives of the ruling authorities, and will automatically blame it for their woes and problems for a long time to come.

In turning its back on its party and transforming it into an ill-defined movement, the Kremlin is turning its back on politics itself. The place for a unified structure is occupied by a set of loyal deputies chosen on an ad hoc basis (as in Moscow), and deliberately apolitical governors. 

  • Andrey Pertsev