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United Russia’s makeover As fateful 2021 elections approach, Russia’s ruling party plans a merger that will probably leave former PM Medvedev out of a leadership role

Source: Meduza
Alexander Astafyev / pool / TASS / Vida Press

The State Duma cohort elected in 2021 will likely play a key role in determining the political future of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In advance of those elections, the United Russia party is set to merge with the All-Russia People’s Front (ONF), a pro-Putin party founded in 2011. United Russia previously dominated the country’s political scene under former Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s control. The new United Russia-ONF combination, however, will replace the former party’s chairperson with three co-chairs, and none of them will be Medvedev. Andrey Pertsev learned about the forthcoming shakeup in conversations with anonymous sources close to the presidential administration and the prime minister’s cabinet as well as multiple sources within United Russia’s party structure.

United Russia may appear to have an iron grip on national politics under Vladimir Putin, but its reputation is not so steely. While the approval rating for Russia’s ruling party stood at 48 percent in June 2018, unpopular pension reforms and other factors have driven it down to 32.7 percent today.

As regional candidates began running independently to avoid any association with the party and Chair Dmitry Medvedev lost his post as prime minister, discussions within the Putin administration about rebranding the party came to a head, Meduza has learned. A source close to the presidential administration indicated that major party reforms are looming in the coming months, and that information was confirmed by sources within United Russia’s leadership and the circles surrounding Russia’s new executive cabinet.

According to one high-ranking member of United Russia, the Putin administration has been conducting internal polling and research about the party’s chances in the 2021 State Duma elections since fall 2019. Possible reforms have been a part of that research. The origins of the idea are even deeper, however: The same source said Mikhail Kuznetsov, a former vice governor for the Moscow region, has been lobbying for a rebrand for years.

Kuznetsov currently leads the Executive Committee for the All-Russia People’s Front (ONF) party, and ever since he entered that position, the politician has been “lobbying for a rebrand that involves a merger” between the two parties, the United Russia member said. An individual close to the Putin administration told Meduza that Kuznetsov has now succeeded. By September, which is the deadline for party changes in advance of the 2021 elections, it appears that there will be a newly renamed United Russia bolstered by an influx of personnel from the ONF.

Some of the changes involved in the unification project are relatively minor: Meduza’s source within United Russia said, “The word ‘Russia’ will stay in the [party’s] name, but the word ‘United’ will drop out.” Other changes will be more substantial. For example, the ONF is currently led by three co-chairs, and that structure will replace United Russia’s single-person leadership structure.

The specific person at the head of that structure will also be replaced, according to two Meduza sources. In Medvedev’s stead, officials are likely to select Duma Vice Speaker and former Deputy Prime Minister Alexey Gordeyev, Strategic Initiatives Agency Director Svetlana Chupsheva, and a third co-chair “who represents the youth.” Kuznetsov and United Russia General Council Chair Andrey Turchak are also likely to hold major roles in the new party’s structure.

Mikhail Kuznetsov
Alexey Nikolsky / Press Service of the President of the Russian Federation / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

To current Russian government officials, the prospect of Dmitry Medvedev’s exit from party leadership was no surprise. One former executive bureaucrat said immediately after Medvedev’s cabinet resigned that the former premiere would face two nearly insurmountable obstacles to leading United Russia in the future. First, Medvedev’s new position as Security Council deputy chair is too private to merit a public leadership role elsewhere; second, it prevents him from lending United Russia executive power or utilizing executive power to help United Russia.

Medvedev himself may not want to leave behind the highest-profile role he still retains, but he may also have little choice in the matter. While one United Russia functionary said Medvedev takes his party leadership seriously and is a highly active chair, the same official said he has not installed his own people in the party’s leadership structure except for a couple of temporary aides who report directly to him. Meanwhile, a Kremlin bloc led by First Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Kiriyenko has managed to place supporters throughout United Russia, especially alongside the party’s financial flows.

That struggle for power within United Russia flows directly into another conflict that might be even more significant. While Medvedev still controlled both his party and his cabinet, he pushed for 2021 election results that would give United Russia a definite Duma majority, according to party sources. Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, advocated for a multi-party coalition featuring politically diverse leaders who would all be loyal to him personally.

Medvedev has probably lost that fight already. In the meantime, Putin appears to retain control over the party reform process as a whole. For example, Meduza’s administration source asserted, “the rebranding will only mean anything if the State Duma elections take place as planned in September 2021. At this point, we’re working under that paradigm, and there’s no sense of a potential early election in the Duma, but everything’s being decided right now in just one place — inside the president’s head.”

A representative for Dmitry Medvedev redirected Meduza’s request for comment to United Russia. A United Russia representative, meanwhile, said “nothing is [currently] known” about any planned reforms within the party.

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Report by Andrey Pertsev

Abridged English version by Hilah Kohen

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