It might seem that little has changed following the recent State Duma elections, with the United Russia ruling party retaining its majority, allowing the Kremlin to reaffirm its control over the lower chamber of parliament. Yet the latest Duma campaign was an important step in the ongoing transformation of the Russian power system that began in 2020 with the resetting of the clock on presidential terms, enabling President Vladimir Putin to extend his time in power. This time around, the changes concern the party system.

Previously, political parties in Russia could be divided into “in-system” (those represented in the Duma) and “non-system” (anti-Putin opposition forces). The recent elections saw the appearance of a new phenomenon: administrative parties directly controlled by the presidential administration, and designed to occupy space on the political scene as United Russia sees its popularity decline.

In the last year, Russia’s party system has changed in two ways. Firstly, there was the crackdown on the non-system opposition. Officially, of course, there were no non-system parties in Russia, but organizations linked to opposition leader Alexei Navalny had created a political pole of attraction, radicalizing some regional assets of the in-system parties.

This was clearly visible at last year’s local elections, when collaboration between some representatives of the in-system parties and Navalny supporters led to victories for them at the municipal level. Now, with Navalny in jail and his support network demolished by the crackdown, that pole is no more, though the “radicalization” (i.e., the growth of real opposition sentiment in the regions) has gone nowhere.

The second way in which party politics have changed is through attempts by the presidential administration to bring the in-system opposition even closer in line by conclusively quashing any rebellion by the Communist Party and the LDPR, which had become emboldened following several victories at the 2018 gubernatorial elections. In 2020, one of those victors—Khabarovsk Governor Sergei Furgal—was jailed. His party, the LDPR, which had at first defended him, was forced to abandon any ideas it had had of trying to outsmart the Kremlin.

Things didn’t go so well for the other in-system parties, either. The liberal Yabloko party made a noose for itself by getting into a confrontation with Navalny and his supporters, while A Just Russia merged with two administrative parties: Patriots of Russia and For Truth, a party founded by the writer-turned-Donbas-fighter Zakhar Prilepin.

It was the Communist Party, however, which really ran the gauntlet. The party made it clear that it was willing to keep operating within the system, but would not agree to get approval for its every action from the Kremlin’s domestic politics overseers. Pavel Grudinin, the popular Communist Party candidate in the 2018 presidential election, was made an example of and stripped of his post as a municipal deputy for a Moscow region town the following year. This was followed by a vicious media campaign against the Communists, causing relations between the party and the ruling regime to deteriorate. Ahead of the recent Duma elections, the Communist Party threw its support behind Navalny’s “smart voting” (a system of tactical voting against United Russia), and in the aftermath of the vote, threatened the Kremlin with mass protests. It has also ramped up its overall rhetoric.

It remains to be seen just how far the conflict between the Communist Party and the Kremlin will go. There are only two things that could prevent the crisis from escalating: either mass protests that would strengthen the Communist Party’s negotiating position with the authorities (right now this looks close to impossible), or the intercession of Putin himself, given his attachment to the old party system. In this respect, it matters who becomes the next speaker of the State Duma: in the last parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin fairly successfully acted as a mediator between the Communists and the presidential administration.

In routing the non-system opposition and clamping down on the in-system opposition, the Kremlin is staking everything on the administrative parties. These include the New People, the Party of Pensioners, Green Alternative, Civic Platform, and the Communists of Russia (not to be confused with the older Communist Party of the Russian Federation discussed above). Only the New People made it over the threshold of 5 percent of votes required to win seats in the Duma. The Party of Pensioners got nearly 3 percent of the vote, while the other parties received 1 percent or less.

The relative success of the New People should not be underestimated. Fringe spoiler parties have long existed in Russia: to leach votes from the Communist Party, for example. But the rare occasions on which they have become popular enough to make it into the Duma have ended in conflict.

The entrance of the Rodina bloc into the Duma in 2003 resulted almost immediately in a very real standoff with the Kremlin, which led to the party’s dismantling in 2005. The appearance of A Just Russia in 2006 was also an attempt to create a second pillar of support for the regime, but the only guarantee of its success was its leader Sergei Mironov’s personal proximity to Putin. This is what prevents A Just Russia from becoming a purely administrative party, but also what stops it from going over to the real opposition.

Still, neither Rodina in its 2003 incarnation nor A Just Russia were entirely administrative parties. Both were set up with the involvement of experienced politicians with their own views and ambitions.

The appearance of the New People in the State Duma is a serious bid for the formation of a pro-regime administrative party with a moderately liberal image. It threatens both the special position of United Russia, which is used to having a monopoly in the pro-regime niche, and the in-system opposition, since previous political overseers preferred to come to an agreement with the in-system parties rather than attempting to replace them with manufactured creations.  

Betting on administrative parties could also add to the conflicts within Putin’s inner circle. Conservative members of the elite with a security services background will likely be wary of playing such games. Nor is United Russia likely to be pleased by the arrival of the New People in the Duma.

It might appear, of course, that there is no real difference between the administrative and in-system parties. Both share the same fundamental priorities as the current authorities, refrain from criticizing the president, and are generally not prepared to truly oppose the regime. Yet there is a difference.

No matter how inclined the in-system parties may be to compromise with the regime, they still have their own voter support bases and some basic autonomy and subjectivity. For them, the presidential administration sets some general ground rules. The administrative parties, on the other hand, are sent down to voters from above, primed to perform specific tasks, and are entirely dependent on the Kremlin. For them, the presidential administration is not an overseer but the boss, and their agenda once in the Duma is agreed in advance: it’s not the voters they represent, but the presidential administration.

The Kremlin’s clampdown on the in-system parties following the decimation of the non-system opposition has left those parties with only two options. Either they must drift toward submitting entirely to the presidential administration, or be prepared to suffer the same fate as the non-system opposition.

  • Tatiana Stanovaya