Sunday, March 31, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Putin’s Popular Front has East German Roots, Analyst Suggests

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 31 – Some Russian commentators suggest that the Popular Front Vladimir Putin addressed last week will replace the increasingly unpopular United Russia as the party of power. Others argue it will usher in a new era of Russian politics. And one says its format reflects Putin’s attachment to what he saw while a KGB officer in East Germany.

            The debate on this is just beginning, and it is far from clear who is right or whether any final decision has been made about how the Russian president may use the Popular Front format in the future. But two surveys, one in, and a second, on, provide some initial food for thought ( and

            Mariya Lippman of the Moscow Carnegie Center, told Kavkaz-uzel that given the declining popularity of United Russia, the All-Russian Popular Front “could replace ‘United Russia’ as the ruling force,” with its currently “amorphous organization” becoming “a significant structure.”

            Dmitry Oreshkin, a Moscow political scientist, in contrast, suggested to the same news service that the front will “become for Vladimir Putin an alternative not so much to ‘United Russia’as to all  institutions of public policy” including paties and parliamentarianism “which have been discredited.” 
            In his view, the Front will not become a political party for elections but means by which Putin can reach out to the majority of the population. In that event, “instead of administered or sovereign democracy,” Russia will have “all-people democracy,” one much less institutionalized than the current version.

            And Aleksey Makarkin, the general director of the Moscow Center of Political Technologies, said that the Front is something Putin now needs for the preservation of his own personal power.  “The voter will search for an alternative to the party of power,” the analyst says, “and one will be offered him – the popular” one of a front.

            According to Lippman, there are two scenarios for the transfer of power from United Russia to the Popular Front. The first would require snap elections so that everything could be calm and in place before the Sochi Olympiad. But the second is more likely and would have the Front “peacefully” take part in the scheduled 2016 vote.

            Oreshkin for his part suggests that the Front will be able to play such a role or bring the Kremlin significant dividends in that regard.  In his view, the Front reflects the Kremlin’s lack of alternatives.

            Another analyst, Aleksey Mukhin of the Center for Political Information told Kavkaz-Uzel that such predictions are “too simple and banal.” In fact, he says, Putin is “planning to create his own group of support at various ends of the Russian political field,” in order to have the opportunity for maneuver beyond the establishment views of United Russia.

            Writing in, Viktor Matynyuk argues that the Popular Front is first and foremost about giving the appearance of a renewal of the powers that be by suggesting that the top leader is open to new ideas from the bottom and allowing people to pose questions even if Putin and other leaders will not answer them directly in such choreographed shows.

            But perhaps the most interesting and certainly the most intriguing idea is offered by Pavel Salin, the director of the Center for Political Research at Moscow’s Financial University.  He argues that the future of the Popular Front is as “an umbrella brand and structure” which will include United Russia and help the authorities “imitate” political renewal.

            Because this new brand entirely depends on Putin, it “will disappear sooner than [his] brand.”  But the form of a popular front itself is clearly a reflection, Salin says, of “the sympathy of our president for the model which existed in the German Democratic Republic where he served in the 1980s and had the chance to become acquainted with the party system there.

            In the GDR, he continues, there “really was something similar” to the All-Russian Popular Front, when under the aegis of one social movement were united” all kinds of political and social trends. At the same time, as Putin certainly knows but Salin doesn’t note, the GDR was swept away a few years later, a fate the Russian president certainly does not want to share.


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