As December’s parliamentary elections approach, the Kremlin faces a dilemma: how to keep the real opposition away from the ballot box and preserve full control over the legislature, while at the same time “letting off steam” in the face of rising discontent and presenting an acceptable facade to the West? For all its dictatorial habits, Russia’s regime certainly wants to avoid looking like Kazakhstan, where the government party won 100 percent of seats in Parliament, and longtime leader Nursultan Nazarbayev was reelected with 95 percent of the vote.
It seems that Kremlin strategists have come up with a plan. One of the most discussed topics in Moscow in the last couple of weeks has been the fate of Right Cause, an ostensibly “opposition” party with close Kremlin connections set up in 2008 by several former members of the Union of Rightist Forces, a once-influential liberal movement that disbanded under pressure from the authorities. While Right Cause’s program calls for “democracy, free market, rule of law,” the party does not hide its ties to the authoritarian regime. Boris Titov, one of Right Cause’s founders, openly stated that the party “coordinates its work with the Kremlin” and that “the presidential administration has played the role of moderator.” Another party official, Boris Nadezhdin, admitted that Right Cause submits its candidate lists for the Kremlin’s approval. The party’s St. Petersburg branch is headed by Sergei Tsybukov, one of the leaders of the For Putin! movement. The party has already stated its intention to back the incumbent in the 2012 presidential elections. “A Kremlin project … a deception … an imitation, manipulation, a mockery of the voters”—this is how Right Cause was characterized by opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, whose Popular Freedom Party will almost certainly be refused registration next month.
It is not surprising that Russia’s pro-democracy voters have not fallen for the forgery. Despite official registration, access to the media and the ballot, Right Cause hardly surfaces in opinion polls and regional elections. Experts predicted that “Kremlin liberals” will not last beyond the next electoral cycle. Yet in the face of their dilemma the authorities have decided to reanimate the project: the Kremlin has supposedly compiled a short list of candidates to lead Right Cause into the Duma election. Potential party leaders include deputy prime minister Igor Shuvalov, finance minister Alexei Kudrin, and presidential aide Arkady Dvorkovich—all high-ranking regime officials with “liberal” (Pinochet-style, that is) credentials. With a name like that at the top of its list, Right Cause will certainly be given seven percent of the vote (the minimum required to form a full caucus in the Duma) by the loyal Vladimir Churov at the Central Electoral Commission.
It is worth noting that during totalitarian rule some Soviet bloc countries were not—officially—one-party states. The communists were joined in rubber-stamp legislatures by “non-communist” groups, such as the Christian Democratic Union in East Germany, the Democratic Party in Poland, or the People’s Party in Czechoslovakia. In the waning days of the USSR, Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party was created as an “alternative” to the Communists—according to former Politburo member Alexander Yakovlev, with the blessing of the KGB. Needless to say, none of these “satellite parties” played any role in the historic events of 1989–91.
If the Kremlin decides on it, Right Cause will be allowed into Parliament this December as a “democratic” decoration for Russian voters and for the West. But it will surely fool no one. Certainly not the 49 percent of Russians who are ready to personally take part in anti-government protests.