Post-Soviet Russia was torn by separatism, economic catastrophe, and bitter struggle between the government and the popular opposition. President Yeltsin had dissolved the country’s democratic institutions by force in 1993, imposing a “special regime” of absolute dictatorial powers until he could install a favorable constitution. Even under the rigged system he created Yeltsin faced ferocious opposition in the State Duma: during the 1990s the Duma was characterized by a weak pro-government party opposed by strong parties on the far-left and far-right.
This dynamic changed in 1999 as the end of Yeltsin’s term approached. That year’s election saw two pro-government, pro-capitalist parties enter the Duma. Each was centered on a Prime Minister who aspired to replace Yeltsin: the Unity party which supported Vladimir Putin, and the Fatherland—All-Russia Bloc which supported former PM Yevgeny Primakov.
Unity had been created by the Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration, Vladislav Suekov. It enjoyed the patronage of Yeltsin’s chosen successor, Vladimir Putin. Putin’s popularity rapidly eclipsed that of his rivals and they dropped out of the race. Over the next few years Surkov would coordinate the merger of OVR into Unity, forming United Russia. For the first time since the fall of communism the pro-government party was the largest in the legislature.
The Presidency had sought a stable, two-party system since the mid-’90s. The intent was to capture anti-government discontent in a party of protest which would not challenge the constitutional order. Much like the United States this was meant to swing from center-left to center-right as popular sentiment changed, thus luring the opposition into compromising with the government.
Creating A Just Russia
Having established a “party of power” in the form of United Russia, Putin’s Presidential Administration set out to build a reserve party which could smoothly take power when United Russia faltered.
On 26 March 2006 Surkov approached Sergei Mironov, Chairman of the Federation Council, with a proposal. Surkov and Mironov agreed to form a new party with the goal of turning it into the second party of power, capable of taking the reins when United Russia eventually loses its popularity. Surkov also delivered a speech to the Russian Party of Life, which supported Mironov, explaining the need for a “second leg” that the government can lean on when the first is tired. By the end of the year A Just Russia: Motherland/Pensioners/Life had been founded, uniting three small parties into one.
The Russian Party of Pensioners
The first of these parties was the Russian Party of Pensioners. The RPP had been founded in 1997 on the basis of the Union of Pensioners, a public organization formed in 1994 to defend public pensions from the Yeltsin government. Curiously, the chairman of the party was neither old enough nor poor enough to depend on a pension: Sergei Atroshenko was a 41-year old businessman who had campaigned for governorships with oligarch money. He was also a go-between for regional politicians and a criminal syndicate called “Ten.” The Party of Pensioners tried to strip away votes from the Communists in the 1999 election but failed to top 1% of the total. The main policy credited to the Party of Pensioners is that the state’s royalties earned from energy exports should be used to fund benefits programs.
Rodina (“Motherland”) was founded as the Party of Russian Regions in 1998. The organization had been created to support the program written by its founders, which aimed to resolve the separatist problems that had plagued the Federation since 1991. The program aimed to create a powerful central state which would be able to provide equal opportunity and material benefits to all subjects of the Federation.
In 2003 the PRR became the center of an apparent project of the President’s political technologists. The electoral bloc People’s Patriotic Union “Rodina,” was constituted by five “national-patriotic” parties on 14 September. Rodina’s strategy was to peel voters away from the ultranationalist LDPR and the CPRF’s national-patriotic coalition, NPSR. This led to a stunning success in the December election: the new nationalist bloc won 37 seats while the CPRF lost 61.
The PRR changed its name to Rodina the next year and tried to unite the members of its bloc into a single party. This project ultimately failed; shortly after their electoral victory the bloc was split by a dispute over who to support in the 2004 Presidential election.
Mironov and the Party of Life
Sergei Mironov was not just some ambitious politician. In the 1990s he and Vladimir Putin worked in the city administration of St Petersburg. The two men became friends and continued to support one another after Putin left for Moscow. In 1999 Mironov was part of the initiative group which first nominated Putin for President and in 2000 he ran Putin’s campaign in St Petersburg. Mironov had proven himself a trusted friend and in 2001 the new President nominated him to head the Federation Council, the upper house of the legislature. Mironov was approved unanimously, becoming the third highest-ranking politician in the country.
Having reached high office Mironov did what so many powerful Russian politicians do: he formed a political party to support his career. This was the purpose for which the Russian Party of Life was founded in 2002. The RPL stood for a united society, free markets instead of kleptocracy, market regulations to protect the rights of people, and that the “social hierarchy that emerged from the ferment of the 1990s should coincide with the hierarchy of responsibility for the country.” In short it sought to ameliorate the problems of capitalism, not to eliminate them.
These three parties came together in 2006 thanks to guidance from the Presidential Administration. On 28 October the Pensioners and the Party of Life, neither of which had significant accomplishments, dissolved themselves and became members of Rodina. At the same time Rodina was reconstituted as Spravedlivaya Rossiya (SR, translated as either “A Just Russia” or “Fair Russia”) and the leaders of the 3 parties became co-chairs of SR.
A Just Russia’s initial goals were: to (re)create a social welfare system funded by energy royalties, to strengthen and unify the country in the wake of the Stormy 90s, and to advance market reforms. It supported the President as a unifying figure and institution while it went into “hard” opposition against United Russia. It would act as the center-left alternative to UR’s center-right position.
Mergers and Acquisitions
A Just Russia expanded rapidly in the first years of its existence. The People’s Party, created by independent deputies of the 3rd Duma, joined the SRs on 14 April 2007. On 12 May the Socialist United Party of Russia, a former member of the Rodina bloc, merged into SR. The SRs were joined by the Entrepreneurship Development Party and the Party of Constitutional Democrats (“Cadets”) later that year.
In the 2007 election the SRs appealed to voters who opposed the government and the communists alike. A Just Russia’s combination of forces cleared the 7% threshold in December’s election and sent 38 deputies to the Duma.
Capturing the Protest Vote
I think that it is better for this electorate, which is opposed, as you put it, against all types of administration, it is better that it will be attracted to you than it will be attracted to destructive forces.Vladislav Surkov, transcribed by Russian Party of Life.
After being elected President in 2008 Dimitri Medvedev appointed Putin as Prime Minister and the SRs filled the role of loyal opposition. The party supported the liberal-leaning president with his plans to diversify and modernize the economy. The conservative former president, however, became a legitimate target of criticism as the head of government.
The global economic crisis hit Russia late in 2008 and the government rushed to shore up banks and other financial institutions with hundreds of billions of rubles in loans. The SRs criticized Putin’s anti-crisis measures and the budgets he tabled in 2009 and 2010. SR was fulfilling its purpose of opposing the party of government and United Russia members were not pleased.
In 2011, ahead of the Duma elections, the UR faction in the St Petersburg legislature moved to recall Mironov. He sat in the Federation Council as a representative of St Petersburg and his recall meant that he could no longer serve as Chairman of the Council. Instead he parachuted into a Duma seat vacated by an SR deputy. When the votes were tallied on 4 December SR had made major gains: the party rose from 7% to 13% of the vote share and from 38 to 64 seats in the Duma.
Allegations of fraud sparked mass protests after the 2011 election, the largest in Moscow since Perestroika. Many SR members and some prominent activists participated in these protests, though the party did not officially endorse them. As the protests continued into 2012 Mironov moved to capture the protest vote, as Surkov had advised the RPL five years earlier. The SR leader infamously wore the symbol of the protesters, a white ribbon, to a session of the Duma. This outraged UR deputies and gave credibility to Mironov’s oppositionism.
Mironov’s embrace of the protest vote offended more than his opponents. Babakov, one of the party’s founding co-chairs, resigned and joined Putin’s new All-Russian People’s Front (ONF). In 2012 the Greens, Pensioners, and Rodina were re-formed and left the SRs. Mironov ran against Putin in the 2012 Presidential race and placed last, earning less than a third of the votes that A Just Russia had scored only four months earlier.
Back to the fold
A Just Russia’s flirtation with the opposition came to an end in October 2012. The target of the protests had shifted from the Duma election to the re-election of Putin as president. This was obviously unacceptable to politicians loyal to the presidency, who forced the issue in the Duma on 26 October.
The next day Mironov instructed the SRs to stop wearing the white ribbon and to distance themselves from the protest movement. He said of the 2012 experience that “participation in the white tape movement was not understood by our voters.” A Just Russia had played to the interests of a relatively small number of liberal oppositionists and alienated part of the much larger electorate in the process.
Nevertheless A Just Russia had fulfilled its role by siphoning support from the protests and directing it away from “destructive forces.” When Mironov turned against the white ribbon movement he also started to expel party members who had participated in the protests. In particular he targeted Gennady Gudkov, former leader of the People’s Party, and Ilya Ponomarev, previously of the CPRF. These men had been elected to the Coordination Council of the Opposition on 22 October, joining the Council’s demands for new elections to the Duma and Presidency.
Mironov did not spend much time removed from the center of power. The President had issued a decree on 11 July 2012 which expanded the State Council to include the leaders of factions in the Duma. The State Council is an advisory body to the President which coordinates the “system of public authority”:
Within the scope of its competence, the State Council takes part in drafting strategic goals and tasks of domestic and foreign policy and shaping state policy on socioeconomic development of the Russian Federation, its constituent entities and municipalities.From The Kremlin
Prior to Decree no. 946 the State Council only included the Chairmen of the Federal Council and Duma, and the heads of the executive branches of each region of Russia. Once Mironov was formally elected leader of A Just Russia in 2013 he took a seat at the State Council and returned to the President’s inner circle.
Since the inclusion of faction leaders in the State Council the foreign policy of all parties has come into alignment with the government. The “Crimea Consensus,” by which all parties accepted the annexation of Crimea in 2014, is one example of this harmonization. Another is that the SRs joined Putin’s ONF in 2015. The most notorious example of this unanimity is A Just Russia’s support for the recognition of the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics and for the “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine.
Ambitions for the Left
Despite warnings that A Just Russia is “without a political future,” as oppositionist Vladimir Kara-Mirza put it in 2013, the party has performed well since the protests ended. SR has been represented in every Duma since it debuted, winning 6% of the vote in 2016 and 7% in 2021. It also continues to attract and absorb other groups, notably merging with For Truth and the Patriots of Russia in 2021.
On 28 July 2022 Gazeta.ru reported that Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov had approved the merger of his party with the SRs on the condition that the SRs accept the CPRF’s party program. This merger had been offered by Mironov back in 2007 and rejected outright by the CPRF leadership. It would appear that times have changed and A Just Russia may yet form a broad, center-left coalition capable of replacing United Russia.