Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Window on Eurasia: United Russia Assumes Another CPSU-Like Function in the Regions

Paul Goble

Vienna, November 25 – Even though it was their leader who insisted that there was no crisis in Russia, United Russia has set up “crisis units” in the federation subjects because it believes that regional officials are “unable to understand the gravity of the current economic crisis,” according to party leaders.
In taking this step, Vladimir Putin’s party of power has simultaneously moved to recover a function that the Communist Party performed in Soviet times and demonstrated, in the words of one Moscow observer, that Russia does not have crisis management but rather management by crisis.
United Russia is creating “anti-crisis staffs in the regions,” “Nezavisimaya gazeta” reported yesterday, in order to put pressure on them to “react adequately to the crisis.” Party leaders say they will meet with local business, media and union leaders to make sure the regional governments do what is necessary (www.ng.ru/politics/2008-11-24/1_er.html).
Speaking to a group of United Russia activists on Friday, Andrey Khazin, a party functionary who serves in the Federation Council, said that “the heads of regions have lost touch with reality. We must call them back to adequate action. [And] we must put regional powers under tight control.”
So far, he said, many regional leaders have presented budgets to the local legislatures which do not appear to reflect an awareness of the seriousness of the crisis. And Khazin added that if they do not change that and do so quickly, they ought, as President Dmitry Medvedev has already suggested, submitting their resignations.
In his view, United Russia will be able to help governors “balance budgets, analyze which projects can be reduced and which social programs expanded, and how to protect citizens from falling victim of the crisis.” In doing that, he said, “it is important that people recognize that the crisis is not the end of life.”
Not everyone in the regions thinks this is a wonderful idea. On the one hand, many regional and republic governments – including prominently Krasnoyarsk kray and Kostroma oblast -- have been budgetary actions and setting up special anti-crisis groups without waiting for Moscow’s direction.
And on the other, many regional leaders are insulted by United Russia’s pretentions. Murmansk Governor Yury Yevdokimov, for example, said that he “absolutely did not agree” with Khazin. It is the people in Moscow “who are cut off from reality, not us.” The regions were taking anti-crisis actions when Putin was denying that there was any crisis at all.
Buygancha Galzanov, the press aide to Kalmyk President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, seconded that opinion. Given that most regional leaders are members of United Russia, “everything goes as planned [and] there is no need to set up a new structure” to guide the regional governments as they work to overcome the crisis.
That of course would be true if United Russia were a political party in the usual sense, a group committed to getting its people elected on the basis of a party program. But United Russia clearly aspires to be more than that and to play a key role in the day-to-day management of the country not through those elected on its ticket but via the party organization itself.
Such an arrangement recalls the way in which the Communist Party of the Soviet Union functioned. And while United Russia at least so far has not tried or even signaled its intention to try to go as far as the CPSU did as the governing body of the country, this latest move in the regions is a disturbing reminder of the impulses some of its leaders are acting on.
But even if United Russia does not move any further in that direction, this latest power grab by a party of a new type reflects another important reality of Putin’s Russia: the absence of crisis management but the existence of something that one Moscow commentator has called management by crisis.
In an essay published in “Kommersant-Vlast’” two weeks ago, Gleb Cherkasov, the political editor of that journal, said that in Russia more than in most countries, crises are when the Kremlin tries to move the country in radically new directions, often apparently unrelated to the event itself (www.kommersant.ru/doc.aspx?DocsID=1052448).
Thus, after the Beslan tragedy four years ago, he wrote, Putin changed the way in which the leaders of regions and republics were selected. Now, with the economic crisis hitting home, there is every possibility that something similar will happen. At the very least, it means that United Russia’s actions outside of Moscow deserve the closest scrutiny.

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