United Russia got a new program, membership of the country’s most prominent female politician and broad praise from its leaders at the party’s 11th congress this weekend. And it got a dressing down from the president.
The party, which dominates Russian politics and counts Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as its chairman, replaced the long-standing cornerstone of its policy, known as Putin’s Plan, with the less personalized Russian Conservatism.
But the platform of socially oriented conservatism — United Russia’s first ideologically coherent program since its creation a decade ago — appears to run counter to Dmitry Medvedev’s stated desire to modernize the country’s economy and political system.
Those contradictions appeared on full display Saturday, when Medvedev subjected United Russia to his strongest criticism yet, indirectly accusing the party of election manipulation and broadly painting its members as bureaucrats intent on keeping power.
The speech was Medvedev’s second major one this month. In his Nov. 12 state-of-the-nation address, he set out a broad path for the country’s modernization, primarily in the economy. In St. Petersburg, Medvedev followed up on his calls for political modernization, saying United Russia needs to step up and reform itself and put a halt to “administrative excesses” within.
“United Russia can only achieve change if it changes itself — I believe that is obvious,” he told the more than 600 delegates and 2,000 guests.
In his clearest reference yet to the massive allegations of fraud in last month’s regional elections, Medvedev said the party must learn to win fairly.
“The party … must learn to win, in fact we all need to learn how to win in an open contest,” he said.
The opposition cried foul after the Oct. 11 elections brought massive gains for United Russia, and in a step unprecedented this decade, the Duma’s three opposition parties boycotted the lower house of parliament for several days.
But the protests soon collapsed and party leaders expressed satisfaction after Medvedev promised election law reforms in his state of the nation, which critics called window dressing.
Medvedev suggested that the misconduct came from regions where party officials were confusing democratic procedures with administrative ones.
“Sadly, some regional divisions of United Russia … show signs of backwardness and concentrate their political activity on intrigues and games within the apparatus,” he said. He demanded that those responsible be fired, saying “such people need to go, as do some other political customs.”
He also suggested that party officials needed a lesson in democracy, arguing that “democracy does not exist for the party — be it the governing or opposition. It exists for the people.”
Renewing his warning that United Russia’s position as the ruling party was not a “lifetime privilege,” Medvedev directed party officials to not lose touch with voters.
United Russia controls a large enough majority in the Duma to change the Constitution, and it also controls most of the country’s regional assemblies and the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament.
Putin, who is not a party member, despite being party chairman, used his speech to focus on the party’s role in formulating economic policy. He did, however, warn members against seeing the party as an “elite, prestige club” for furthering careers rather than the public’s interests.
The remarks were reminiscent of what he told party delegates last year: that United Russia should be debureaucratized and cleansed of “unqualified people pursuing selfish goals.”
Medvedev has also refused to join the party, saying the president should not pledge allegiance to any party, and he has had a noticeably smaller role in its decision making than Putin, who has also refrained from officially joining.
While speaking at the convention, Medvedev addressed delegates as “dear colleagues” but made it clear that he was an outsider by using “you” instead of “we” when he referred to the party.
St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko said Saturday that she officially joined the party and its Supreme Council — six years after being elected as an independent governor.
“In this case, I did the honest thing. I ‘legally declared’ my feelings about the party, with which I, as governor, have long had a constructive relationship,” she said in a statement released by her press office. She stressed that she only declined to join earlier because of her election as an independent, and that she “never saw” the party as an elite club.
State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, who heads United Russia’s Supreme Council, proudly told delegates that the party was the unifying force for all branches of government.
He lashed out at those who call United Russia a party of bureaucrats, arguing that while it had respect for members working in state agencies, that was not its defining principle.
“What unites our 2 million members is not proximity to the state but common values and a common ideology,” he said.
Gryzlov said the new program contained elements both from Putin’s Plan and from Medvedev’s “Go, Russia!” article, published in September, and his state-of-the-nation speech. “We are shaping the new, while keeping the best,” he said, referring to United Russia’s formulation of conservatism.
Sergei Markov, a United Russia Duma deputy and Kremlin-connected analyst, said that while Medvedev’s criticism was justified, it would be wrong to take it as proof of a rift between the president, the party and Putin.
“Yes, he said those things, and I fully agree with him, but he also made it clear that he’s siding with the party when he praised its support for the Kremlin anti-crisis program,” Markov said Sunday.
He admitted that there was potential for conflict between Medvedev and Putin and United Russia, but that the St. Petersburg convention had shown that the party agreed with both.
Markov compared Medvedev’s criticism to an argument between husband and wife. “If you criticize your spouse, you do not do that to leave her but to improve your marriage,” he said.
Oleg Shein, a Duma deputy for the Just Russia party, said there was a real danger that United Russia was becoming too powerful. “Today the party has effectively as much influence as the Kremlin,” he told The Moscow Times.
As an example, he named a new rule for nominating governors, introduced by Medvedev. The system gives the biggest local party, invariably United Russia, the right to put forward a list of candidates to the president.
“Important personnel decisions are now made in Banny Pereulok,” he said, referring to the party’s headquarters. “This is a very dangerous trend toward party dictatorship.”
Shein, who lost a bid to become mayor of Astrakhan in the October elections, argued that the strongest opposition to Medvedev’s modernization campaign came from the “conservative bureaucracy,” which is heavily represented in United Russia, especially on a regional level.