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12 September 2016

The catcher in the lie

What does United Russia offer in this election and what were the promises made to voters yesterday?

The parliamentary election in Russia will take place in a week’s time. United Russia (UR) stands a good chance of achieving the best results from party lists yet again and of forming the Duma majority taking into account candidates in single-member constituencies who avail of “administrative resources”. A key party promise in the run up to the election is to support the president’s policy and implement every “Putin plan”. And although we are aware of the fact that no one in Russia has been interested in the platforms of political forces for a long time and the majority make their choice based on their sympathies for one politician or another, one would still like to consider what the ruling party has to offer in this election today and what promises were made to voters not so long ago.

There is a plethora of fake documents online and in the press today which purportedly list party objectives and targets. In the light of this, here we refer solely to official pre-election platforms published by United Russia in 2003, 2007 and 2016. However, as we will see, lies, eyewash and unfulfilled promises are patently apparent from them alone. Although, it should also be stated that, to be fair, the overall level of realism of their platforms is much higher than the majority of those of other political forces in the country. However, for fifteen years, UR has been the ruling party and hence it should be held accountable for past objectives listed in its manifesto.

The two main trends in all of the platforms (further on cited as [2003], [2007] and [2016]) are, on the one hand, a hurried departure from a reasonable market approach to the economy and healthy globalization in foreign policy towards economic statism and confrontation. On the other hand, the policy document is characterized by the absence of any specific details (dates, figures or statements) pertaining to promises for the future. Moreover, the party cites a multitude of past achievements as it continues to gain experience in governing the country. Some of the achievements appear dubious to say the least, especially when we take earlier promises into account along with experiences of other countries that Russia is often compared to.

Let us begin with the 2003 platform submitted prior to the election to the State Duma of the 4th convocation. During the election campaign the party focused on transparent governance, development of business initiatives and becoming a pro-Western force in terms of foreign policy. A lot of promises were made. For example, recommendations were made that “the number of ministries and agencies, State Duma committees and sub-committees as well as the number of functions of state agencies should be reduced to an absolute minimum” (the number of public officials and siloviki in the country stood at almost half of today’s number whereas the cost of the state apparatus from the federal budget has increased 3.7 times in dollars at the current exchange rate over these years). The “nomenklatura barrier” was to be completely eradicated: a career in public administration should be accessible to all” (it is apparent that no one reaches the top save for relatives, friends and business partners of highest-ranking officials). The center should be an equal partner for the regions: “United Russia considers attempts to “offload” social commitments on local self-government (mayors and heads of districts) devoid of financial resources inadmissible” (however, this is precisely what became the central element of “Putin’s plan” in May 2012). An advanced industrial economy was to be the main objective in the economic direction: “Through flexible fiscal policy, we are committed to seizing excessive profits obtained via the oil and gas industries and using those funds to invest in the development of infrastructure and high technologies” in order to “tilt the balance of exports in favor of engineering and high-tech industries” (in 2002, 54.4% of exports comprised all types of mineral commodities and 9.5% - machinery and equipment whereas in 2014 oil, petrochemicals and gas alone accounted for 64.4% of exports whereas machinery only 5.3%). The party spoke of “transparency of fiscal and budgetary policy” (more than 20 new taxes and up to 200 amendments to the Russian Tax Code have been introduced over the last 10 years; the share of classified items in the federal budget rose from 9% to more than 20% of total expenditure. One of the tasks was “to bring about a sharp increase in wages by increasing the share of wages in GDP in the coming years” (the share did increase but it stabilized at a level of approximately 36% of GDP compared to 72% in the US). Another objective was to ensure that “civilized and legitimate forms of labor relations, resolution of labor disputes and conflicts became the norm in contemporary Russia” (collective actions such as protests against the “Platon” system or those related to the situation in agriculture, which would be regarded as civilized acts of discontent in any Western country, resulted in police raids and criminal cases in Russia). One of the priorities of social policy was to provide assistance to “retirees who want to remain active” (they have recently been rewarded with a refusal to index their pensions). The party promised affordable housing to workers with average incomes and declared that it intended to “reduce housing prices and at the same time promote lending (personal loans and mortgages) for those who needed them” (today, the cost of a two-room, 65 sq. meter apartment in Moscow is equal to 8 times the average annual income of a Russian worker). In general, by 2010, “the minimum accepted standard of living for the entire population of Russia should be on a par with citizens living in EU member states” (by that time, the average salary in Russia equated to 20,700 rubles [$510] whereas the average rate across the 27 EU member states stood at $2,160).  Finally, another aim was to “maintain friendly relations with the US”; Russia “should be surrounded by ‘a friendship belt’” and in five-six years “Russia’s entry into the Schengen area” was expected (there have been so many initiatives in foreign policy I do not care to mention them all).

Four years on, the platform of the same party was entirely different. No mention was made of the foreign policy or global integration this time. Party members learnt that the collapse of the USSR was regarded a “Western plot” and “the greatest ever geopolitical disaster” by their leader. Hence, not economic progress (perhaps also because “we managed to solve the most complex and acute problems that accumulated for decades”) but “the further development of Russia as a unique civilization, the protection of the common cultural space, the Russian language and our historical traditions” became the primary aim. In general, “war” rhetoric turned out to be so prevalent in the platform that it could not but provoke strange thoughts. “Protection”, “fight”, “defense”, “offensive” as well as “front” became commonplace terms. Earlier it was said that economic development was the key to ensuring a higher quality of life for all citizens of Russia, whereas no one remembers about citizens now: “transition to an innovative economy based on promising ideas, inventions and economic capabilities to implement them more quickly in practice compared to other countries” is treated as an “issue critical to Russia’s survival as a great superpower” (which, in itself, is strange: has survival not been one of those “most complex and acute problems” deemed already solved?).

Rejection of “new industrialization” became vital. It was said that “the exploitation of Russia’s competitive advantages in the energy sector was the key to future growth” whereas “the reduction of energy consumption was the key means of achieving it” (let me note that the reserve was not used: Russia’s GDP showed little growth between 2008 and 2015 whereas oil consumption in the country increased by 7.3% [according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2016]). And yet again, as before, party members/public officials did not manage to resolve specific problems which were not public but private in nature and set out in “the platform principle”. “The conversion of Russia into the transport heart of the world based on the party’s project “The Transport Corridor” was not fulfilled: less than 0.6% of cargo transit passes through the Trans-Siberian Railway from Asia to Europe and transit cargo along the North Sea Route fell to one-thirtieth of its previous level between 2012 and 2015: from 1.26 million tons to 39.6 thousand tons. Measures outlined in the party’s “Russian forest” project aimed at establishing timber processing and abandoning round wood exports” did not work either: Russia remains the world leader in round-timber exports today and the decline in its exports did not result in any serious growth with respect to processing yield. The plan to make “the program for development of nanotechnologies an equally important state priority as the programs “Space” and “Rocket Engineering” were during the 1960s and 1970s” prompts a chuckle today: the relevant state corporation recorded losses of 8.3 billion rubles against 2.9 billion total revenue in the first half of 2016. Comrades from UR said that “construction of federal highways and the reconstruction of roads will be of particular importance” and yet the route “Moscow-St. Petersburg” exists only in the imagination ten years on (the same goes for the Moscow-Kazan high-speed railway).

“The immediate goal of pension reform” was to bring the reproduction rate to 40% (it was at 34% in 2015 and is now deteriorating); the promise was that “due to a significant increase in pensions and wages as well as a lower rate of inflation (down to 5% in 2011), Russia will finally cease to be a country of the poor” (inflation reached 6.1% in 2011 whereas the proportion of citizens with an income below the subsistence level is currently 13.3% of the population as it was in 2007, and is set to rise). In 2007, the party had plans to “demand efficient administrative reforms and to determine the number of public officials based on the optimal adequacy ratio” – I will leave it to Russians to judge whether the promise has been kept (so far, it seems that the country’s entire population serves as a point of reference for the “optimal adequacy ratio”).

Voters should note that the party’s promises are comparatively meager today. The rhetoric was “military” but optimistic-and-offensive on the whole in 2007 whereas it seems wholly defensive now. No reference is made to “the friendship belt” in foreign policy or the international attractiveness of the country – the party’s only demands are that the sanctions are lifted by Europe and residents of Crimea “are no longer discriminated against”. On a global scale, Russia presents itself solely as a member of the SCO and BRICS and measures its successes against those of these member states only. Dreams of the country’s role in the global transport system evanesced like smoke – today, we speak only of the “country’s transport connectivity” whereas 40 thousand settlements with 12 million residents are still not connected by paved roads in the 16th year of United Russia’s rule. Industrialization has been reduced to import substitution; attempts to create a favorable tax system boil down to the necessity to “stabilize” it (against the backdrop of three amendments proposed by the president aimed at raising taxes and introducing new ones in the last month). Improvement of the well-being is not mentioned at all (the party promises “stabilization” of living standards and their increase: in 2017 for pensioners and 2018 – for others). It is now acknowledged that the 40% reproduction rate will not be achieved earlier than 2020 (in 2007 it was expected by 2012). However, much has been said about Russian uniqueness, spirituality, “civilizational choice” and the fact that these virtues should be nurtured and protected.

In the 2016 platform, the range of obligations, each of which amounting to nothing more than a stated intention, is something entirely new. A special “sub-division” of bureaucratic “newspeak” has effectively been invented: the party promises, for example, to “develop a new system for the assessment of state regulation of entrepreneurship”; “develop a system of internal monitoring of the business climate in Russia”; “develop measures aimed at promoting the employment of young people entering the labor market for the first time”; “develop measures to stimulate the production of goods and services for elderly citizens”; and even “study the issue of improving the system of independent evaluation of the equality of medical services” (in other words, no promises are made to solve problems now but their consideration is recommended). Moreover, it turns out that the state apparatus, de facto built and controlled by the party, does not cope with its tasks. In other words, why would we speak of the need “to ensure effective measures undertaken by the state to decrease everyday corruption” or the need “to maintain continuous control over the implementation of the law regarding conflict of interests and requirements as regards public accountability to the citizens”. That is, having adopted laws and established bureaucratic structures and having spent one and a half decades on the same, United Russia invites voters to elect it again so that it may control the state it created. It cannot be denied that this proposal is seemingly somewhat peculiar, irrespective of one’s attitude to the party.

United Russia is bidding for the support of Russians in the parliamentary election for the fourth time. We have no desire to criticize it or campaign for other parties – they are unlikely to offer anything more realistic but their leaders differ from UR members in terms of their motives. However, voters should be cognizant of the fact that promises of the Russian ruling party are becoming increasingly vague year after year while its successes are largely limited to drawdown on budgetary funds as opposed to the achievement of any specific goals. 

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