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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Unity Party Challenges Communists

In a surprise move, the pro-Kremlin Unity party said Monday it will join the Communists in the State Duma in seeking a no-confidence vote in the government of Mikhail Kasyanov.

But Unity said its aim is not to bring down the government but to bring about early parliamentary elections — which it said could lead to the demise of the Communist Party.

"We are not siding with the Communists; we don't think that the government is performing poorly. Our aim is to provoke the dissolution of the Duma and new parliamentary elections," the deputy head of the Unity faction, Frants Klintsevich, said at a news conference held at Interfax.

Coming after weeks of speculation on the future of Kasyanov's government, the move stirred emotions on the political stage. It drew instant criticism even from some of Unity's members and allies, who accused the party of engaging in political games and warned the step could backfire. While most political observers took the move at face value and labeled it a Kremlin-orchestrated attempt to bring the Communists to heel, some predicted it could eventually lead to changes in the government.

The Communists on Monday submitted a petition to the Duma Council demanding a no-confidence vote, Interfax reported. They accused the government of failing to invest the budget surplus in domestic industry and selling out the country's remaining assets to the oligarchs, and criticized its plans to allow the sale of land and to make the Labor Code less worker-friendly.

When the Communists first announced their intention to force a vote of no-confidence, it was perceived as little more than a political PR maneuver and an attempt to combat criticism within their ranks that they were too soft toward the Kremlin.

But Unity seems to have called their bluff.

It takes 226 votes in the 450-seat Duma to win a non-confidence vote. The president can ignore the first vote, but if Duma deputies vote against the government in a second vote within three months, he either has to sack the government or call early parliamentary elections.

"We assume that the president would not follow the no-confidence vote and disband the government, but disband the Duma instead and call new elections," Klintsevich said.

Both Klintsevich and the head of the Unity faction, Boris Gryzlov, predicted that Unity would make big gains against the Communists if new elections were called.

Only a couple of months after it came into being, and riding the wave of Putin's popularity, Unity finished a stunningly close second to the Communists in the last elections in December 1999. With its allies in the People's Deputy faction, Unity controls 164 seats. The Communists and their Agrarian allies have a combined 127.

After the elections, the Communists seemed to fall under the spell of Putin's popularity and became surprisingly compliant, voting for numerous Kremlin-backed bills without a single critical word. More recently, though, they have started voicing their opposition.

Still, it's little wonder that some in the Duma refused to believe Unity's explanation of wanting to provoke elections. "I see no grounds for it," said Vladimir Lukin, deputy speaker from the Yabloko faction, in an interview to Ekho Moskvy radio. "It's practically impossible to form a more obedient Duma than it already is."

Lukin added that perhaps Kasyanov's Cabinet — which has been running the country for more than a year without major reshuffles — could be the ultimate victim of the game.

Similarly, Andrei Ryabov of the Moscow Carnegie Center said the Kremlin might not be fully pleased with Kasyanov's performance.

"Maybe Putin finally realized that such a Cabinet can only 'reform' the country the old way, one which we saw during Yeltsin's time, and decided to remove it with Unity's hands," Ryabov said.

But Sergei Markov, foreign editor of the Kremlin-connected web site, said the president has no major grievances about the Cabinet and is more concerned by signs of opposition in the Duma.

Markov also said he had trouble imagining a more compliant Duma. "Still, that's apparently not the impression the presidential administration is getting. And it's they who decide," he said, adding there was no doubt that Putin had approved Unity's move.

Markov predicted the ultimate result will be neither a government reshuffle nor new elections.

"The Kremlin doesn't want a government reshuffle and wouldn't mind new elections. The Communists would like to force some changes in the government, but they don't want any elections," he said. "As a result, we might get the first no-confidence vote to pass, but I think the Communists would get scared along the way and we wouldn't see the second vote."

Pro-Kremlin factions in the Duma could hold a second vote over the Communists' head to keep them in line. This, Markov said, would "once and for all set the new rules of the game — how far the criticism can go and what can and what cannot be criticized."

Carnegie's Ryabov dismissed Unity's prediction of a sweeping victory in the polls as "empty talk."

"They simply can't get that much of the vote. This is not 1999, when they were promoted by [Emergency Situations Minister and Unity leader Sergei] Shoigu, who went around the country digging people out from the rubble of blown-up apartment buildings and gathering votes for his party," Ryabov said.

Yevgeny Volk, director of the Heritage Foundation, agreed. "The Kremlin apparently hasn't calculated it all too well," he said. "People might not really be happy to vote again a year and a half after they voted the last time. They may think the Kremlin is making fools out of them."

Unity's move was criticized by one of its own most prominent deputies. "We don't need any social disturbances," said Lyubov Sliska, first deputy speaker in the Duma, in remarks reported by Interfax. Instead of spending money on elections, she said, "we better spend it on returning our debt to the Paris Club."

Unity's closest political allies also were unhappy. "These are obvious political games and an attempt to scare the Communists with Duma dismantling," said Gennady Raikov, the head of People's Deputy. "But the Communists are not ones you can frighten."

Keeping a brave face, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov curtly gave assurances that his party was "not afraid" of early elections. "We have rich experience in participating in elections," Interfax quoted him as saying.

The parties who stand to lose the most if new elections are called are the smaller ones — the Union of Right Forces, or SPS, Yabloko, Fatherland-All Russia and the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, or LDPR.

The parliament's deputy speaker from SPS, Irina Khakamada, said both her faction and Yabloko have decided "not to play somebody else's game." "We need a week to understand what kind of intrigue the Kremlin is playing out," she said.

Sergei Ivanenko, Yabloko's deputy faction leader, criticized Unity's move as "an absolutely irresponsible game." "These games are a sign that intrigues have taken the place of public politics," he said.

Both LDPR and Fatherland-All Russia said they would not support a no-confidence vote.