Published 20-06-2013, 15:09
Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, New York
The creation of a movement such as the All-Russia People’s Front could have happened much earlier. All events were pointing in this direction towards the end of 2007-beginning of 2008 during Putin’s second term. It was exactly then, when Putin was at the height of his popularity, that the idea of a national leader took root, but lacked an institutional framework. Many of Putin’s supporters favored a third term, but he refused. The idea never received an institutional design, and the process was brought to a standstill.
Today, even with a time lag, this idea of a national leader is receiving its institutional foundations. Putin is posing as a unifying leader, poised to bring the country together. He does not belong to a party, a social stratum or a class; he desires to unite all citizens around himself as a charismatic national leader. This is what Charles De Gaulle did to overcome the disunity of society and political fragmentation, thereby succeeding in uniting the people around him. His party was called Rally of the French People. De Gaulle’s decisions turned out to be successful, as the new French Constitution transformed the French political system, making it efficient, strong, predictable, and bringing an aura of respect to the government. In Russia, the objectives of the People’s Front are the same. The All-Russia People’s Front is more than a party and is a supra-party organization. It is meant to unite, not divide. Even at the Front’s Congress, it was obvious that Putin needed a mechanism for direct dialogue with the people. It seems to me that the aim of the All-Russia People’s Front is to reach out to all and assure them that we are in this together, we stand united, and can overcome any hurdle. And that it is our duty to make our country strong and respected. These ideas, of course, aren’t new. Paraphrasing the famous Kennedy words, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” Putin essentially said that each of us needs to contribute to the creation of a Russia that to us seems ideal. This is a perfect formula for bringing people together, inspiring and mobilizing them. It is a message to the people that the President knows in which direction the people and country as a whole should go, and is calling on them to follow him. He is convinced that together, they can meet all challenges and create the progress that Russia needs.
Putin is a reformer that yearns to see qualitative changes in Russia. This is the hallmark of the charismatic politician who wants to leave his mark on the history of his people as a creator of change. This is what separates Vladimir Putin from ordinary politicians, with their noses stuck in rudimentary tasks. Such a framework is too constraining for him, for he has always been a charismatic-plebiscitary leader. He needs to feel his people’s mood and support. He wishes to be in unison with the public to effect the changes expected of him. And the All-Russia People’s Front represents the people’s support and trust earned during his years in power crystallized into an institution. The popular support will be the base he needs to tackle the bureaucracy, the oligarchs, and all segments that need to be pressured because it is this support that legitimates Putin’s power and makes possible any and all breakthroughs and decisive actions.
Now Putin must create instruments for the Front: offer a clear program, impose explicit tasks and goals that were articulated at the Front’s Congress only in general terms. In all likelihood, we can now expect detailed goals, time limits, deadlines, and mechanisms of action. Because by 2018, Putin will be judged based on his ability to bring about sweeping transformations to Russian society. This will determine whether he remains in history as a major reformer or whether his image fades. Heading the All-Russia People’s Front means the President accepts a lot of responsibility—from now on, all processes and transformational projects of society will be associated with his name. Because ideas aren’t the be-all and end-all: what is needed is an effective politician to carry them out. This is why a powerful political force is crucial—so that an effective leader can draw support from it. This is a huge risk, but Putin has never been afraid of risk and frequently wins when he takes one. I think he understands that Russia can exist either as a great power or not at all. And that our country has a special role and a special mission.
Naturally, the question of the fate of United Russia (UR) arises as we discuss the institutional makeup of the Front. It is understandable that UR could not become the basis of support for the new Putin term. Because he needed a base, which, just like Ceasar’s wife, had to be above suspicion, and the UR was no longer above suspicion in certain segments of the population. There is one more reason for the particular time in which the All-Russia People’s Front appeared: namely, that now more than ever the need arose for an open structure with new people and new ideas. Using his popular support, Putin will, I hope, tackle questions, which are in one way or another blocked by the bureaucracy. When the leader directly communicates with his followers and can mobilize them to support his actions, the bureaucracy cannot block decisive measures that infringe on their own venal interests. Once the Front becomes an effective institution in public and political life, it may become the chief instrument and an important factor in mobilization in the next Duma elections and in the Presidential elections in 2018.
I think that, in time, United Russia will simply dissolve in the Front. In this way, the All-Russia People’s Front is also a way to clean and rejuvenate the Russian political space.
Still, the main function of the Front is to provide direct dialogue and coordination between the people and the leader. This is an ambitious and a historic task. Should he succeed, Putin will remain in history in the ranks of politicians such as Charles De Gaulle and Deng Xiaoping. In other words, he will be remembered as a great reformer. De facto, the tasks of Russian politics remain the same as Putin himself articulated them in the past: diversifying the economy away from the export of oil and gas, modernization, and making Russia a part of the knowledge economy and a top exporter of quality products. These are the criteria according to which Putin’s current presidency will be judged. The tasks of his former presidencies were different and he faced up to them: stabilizing the political system, consolidating power, creating working institutions, and effectively using the oil and gas resources. Today, however, this is not enough. We need new policies that necessitate such potent political instruments as the All-Russia People’s Front.