Putin’s recipe in Vučić’s kitchen
Vučić’s announcement of the formation of the People’s Movement for the State reminded many of a similar movement founded by Vladimir Putin in 2011. Putin then said that the All-Russian People’s Front was being established so that the country would be stronger and better prepared to face the upcoming challenges. Why was it founded at that very moment and what was the purpose of this political project of Putin’s?
The All-Russian People’s Front was formed before the 2021 presidential election, in support of Putin’s candidacy, after the end of Medvedev’s presidential mandate. First and foremost, there was the electoral logic of such a move. Putin’s party, United Russia, had been in power for ten years, and at that point it was facing serious problems. Russia was still recovering from the effects of the recession, corruption was wayward, and the opposition organised mass protests.
To the extent that public opinion polls can show the state of affairs in a country where freedom of expression is limited, they have shown a significant decline in support for United Russia. The formation of the All-Russia People’s Front allowed Putin to distance himself from the party by personally leading a wider front of which the party would be just a part, and expanding the pool of voters to those who would support him as leader but were sceptical of the party.
Nevertheless, this was not just an electoral arrangement, but something more. It soon became clear that this is a long-term project, which has a role beyond the electoral process. Putin influenced the entire political field with the All-Russian People’s Front, by having in one hand the party that exercises power, and in the other the body that represents the “voice of the people”, which oversees and criticizes the exercise of power, which is otherwise the function of civil society and the opposition. The crucial role of the Front was to provide an organisational form to Putin’s authoritarian technology of power.
Hundreds of political groups, trade unions, non-governmental organisations, initiatives and individuals joined the All-Russian People’s Front immediately after its formation. Although it was not founded as a party, the Front was foreseen to participate in the elections. Therefore, at the beginning it was not clear what the relationship between the Front and the ruling United Russia party would be.
The main thing is that the Front did not replace the party, it continued to exist, and to be the pivot of Putin’s government, but in different circumstances, as now it had an external factor that it had to count on. On the lists of United Russia there were always independent candidates, who were not members of the party. In the upcoming elections, however, the candidates of the Front made up a much larger part, almost one third of the candidates, and after the elections they received important seats in the State Duma.
United Russia, of course, accepted and implemented all of Putin’s decisions, but, at least on the surface, it was not too happy that power was now being shared with the Front. The Front was loyal only to Putin, and often criticised the Party for inefficiency, insufficient loyalty and “correctness”, while the Front’s particularly important role was to point out to Putin the corruption and incompetence of the state apparatus. Nonetheless, one should not overemphasise the conflicting relationship between the Party and the Front, there was always just as much conflict as Putin needed at a given moment, without jeopardising the stability of the government.
Front for the leader
Although the Front claimed to strive for the development of real democracy and true participation, it was actually a way to further strengthen the existing regime. A personalised regime that lasts for a long time needs new forms of organisation, which allow power to remain concentrated in the hands of the same man. In this regard, the Front was useful to Putin in several ways.
Given the fact that the Front is not a political party, it could serve to deepen and expand the clientelistic networks that maintain power. Members of the Front are individuals and organisations, including a large number of trade unions and employers across the country. Companies have no restrictions to finance it, and workers’ organisations can also formally be members. In fact, the informal network of clientelism and patronage that was loyal to Putin has taken organisational form.
On the other hand, the formation of the Front takes place at a time of great pressure on non-governmental organisations and the passing of laws on “foreign agents.” Since Putin took organisations he did not control out of the game, the Front has taken on the role of civil society in Russia. The Front engages in research, designs voluntary actions, proposes laws, oversees the work of the state administration, and serves as a forum for deliberation on important topics. All these processes serve to give greater legitimacy to Putin’s policies.
Last but not least, since the Front is not a party, and pretends to be “all-Russian”, it could expand beyond the borders of Russia, to the entire post-Soviet space. Already in 2011, a large number of organisations and individuals from Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, South Ossetia, and the Baltic States joined the Front. In this way, the Front served not only Putin’s domestic policy, but also foreign policy, in the political gathering of pro-Russian actors outside the borders of Russia.
How to determine this form of political organisation? The All-Russian People’s Front is neither a party nor an association of citizens, but something else. A British political scientist Richard Sakwa defines it as a parapolitical body. Parapolitics is a process in which entities are created in the public sphere entertaining the illusion of leading a free and open pluralistic policy, but which actually hinder it, because they lack the autonomy to act as independent actors.
Putin’s policy has been undermining formal institutions for decades, and then, as expected, it became clear that in the public sphere there was still a need for the functions that institutions performs in a pluralistic society. That is why Putin has created parapolitical bodies, which are subordinate to the regime, and which compensate for the shortcomings of the destroyed formal institutions, but also limit whatever is left of them.
The Front represented the reflection of the society, in which the centralisation of power in the hands of one man blocked many processes. For example, the Front dealt with illegal landfills, young people were engaged in designing the future of Russia, during the Covid-19 pandemic it played an important role in suggesting measures. All of these are examples of formalised voluntary work of parapolitical bodies. With this form of civic engagement, the existing, formal channels are undermined but also overcome, reshaping the way in which politics is conducted in the country.
Putin’s All-Russian People’s Front is not unique in the world. Similar “supra-party” movements or fronts, which expand the party base and coordinate the management of society, can be detected in formally one-party, communist regimes, such as today’s China, Vietnam or Cuba. Other examples reminiscent of it are in multi-party regimes, where broad electoral coalitions of parties often include non-party actors, such as trade unions.
Nonetheless, parapolitical movements like Putin’s are a different phenomenon though, as they take part in multi-party elections, but they also assume functions that would be expected in one-party regimes. Perhaps the most similar example is Venezuela, where, in 2011, the ruling socialist party of Hugo Chávez founded, also before the elections, a broad front named after Simón Bolívar, which gathered thousands of parties, social organisations, unions, and smaller movements, and which continued to play a role in the political life of the country after the elections.
If we were to compare these cases of parapolitical organisation with the current events in Serbia, there are some analogies, but also big contextual differences. It is difficult to imagine that the announced People’s Movement for the State could take on all the roles that a similar front would have in a one-party regime, or in a non-European electoral autocracy. Vučić’s movement will rather be something in between – more than an ordinary electoral coalition, less than the transformation of the entire political field.