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RUSSIA: The Party System from 1963 to 2000, By Michael J. Faber*

The political history of the USSR was marked by its leaders rather than legislatures, as the parliament had little power compared with the political elites within the Communist Party. The Communists held a very strong majority in the parliament throughout the existence of the Communist regime. Although there were independents within the parliament, they were almost without exception loyal to the Communist Party, although not party members. The soviet system made all other political parties illegal.

In 1964, Nikita Khrushchev was removed from both leadership posts he held in the Soviet Union, and Leonid Brezhnev took over as general secretary of the party. In 1977, Brezhnev also took over as the chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, effectively consolidating his power as the soviet leader.

Under Brezhnev's leadership, the USSR grew both economically and politically. Between 1960 and 1980, the soviet gross national product had more than tripled. Industrial production had grown to four times its 1960 level. The real income of ordinary citizens doubled in this time. Simultaneously, the USSR made significant diplomatic advancements. By the early 1970s , it was approximately as strong as the United States, both militarily and diplomatically. In short, Brezhnev presided over a period of phenomenal advancement for the Soviet Union.

However, starting as early as the late 1960s , Brezhnev's health was failing. Towards the end of his time, he was missing public engagements, and his control over the party was slowly slipping away. On November 10, 1982, Brezhnev died suddenly and soon thereafter Yuri Andropov, formerly the head of the KGB, was elected to succeed him as the general secretary. By June of 1983, Andropov had concentrated the power of the USSR through his election as chairman of the Presidium. Andropov's health, however, was not much better than Brezhnev's , and he only lived until February 9, 1984.

Once again, the Communist Party was searching for a successor. There were two members of the Politburo that stood out as likely choices. One was Konstantin Chernenko, Andropov's principal rival for the position at Brezhnev's death. The other was Mikhail Gorbachev, a close associate of Andropov in his brief period as the party's leader, as well as the youngest current member of the Politburo. Ultimately, Chernenko was elected general secretary, at least in part due to his seniority and experience.

Chernenko was 72 at the time of his election, the oldest general secretary ever to have assumed office. He was not destined to serve for long, as he died on March 10, 1985. After Chernenko's death, Gorbachev, who was only 54 years old, was elected to succeed him. Gorbachev came into power with a great ambition to improve the USSR. He instituted a great number of reforms in the government, including making available information that had long been suppressed by the government. The recent history of the Soviet Union was reevaluated, with particular emphasis on first the Brezhnev then the Stalin regimes. Gorbachev tried to reduce the bureaucracy that he felt was hurting worker productivity. All in all, he made significant attempts to reform the USSR.

In August of 1991, a group of individuals from within the highest levels of leadership in the Communist Party organized a coup attempt, in which they imprisoned Gorbachev and declared that a state of emergency existed. The vice president, Gennadii Yanaev, took control of the country, and a State Emergency Committee was formed, which announced that Gorbachev was ill, and Yanaev would be taking over until Gorbachev was once again fit to serve as the country's leader. The Committee then suspended all political activity other than its own, banned the publication of many newspapers, and ordered the surrender of firearms.

In defense of its actions, the Committee claimed that there were extremist factions seeking to break up the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the economy was in crisis and law and order had broken down. The Committee promised to restore order. However, the coup was not well planned and encountered a great deal of opposition, most notably by recently elected Russian president Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin publicly declared that every action of the Committee was illegal, and that Gorbachev must be restored immediately to power.

On August 21, just three days after Gorbachev was imprisoned, the Supreme Soviet Presidium declared the actions of the Committee illegal. Soon thereafter, criminal charges were pursued against the organizers of the coup. Gorbachev returned the next day, and thanked Yeltsin and the others involved in securing his release. On August 23, Yeltsin had signed a decree suspending Communist activity in Russia. Soon after, Gorbachev resigned the general secretaryship and called upon the Central Committee to dissolve itself.

After the coup failed, the remaining republics (with the exception of Russia) declared themselves independent of the USSR. The Baltic republics had declared independence a year earlier. In December 1991, the Commonwealth of Independent States was formed, a loose confederation of most of the former members of the Soviet Union which had no president and no central parliament. Finally, on December 25, Gorbachev resigned his last remaining public office.

In March 1990, the Russian parliamentary elections were partly competitive as part of reform efforts. This parliament took Russia through the end of the Soviet Union. In September 1993, Boris Yeltsin dissolved the parliament, quite illegally since the President had no power to suspend the operation of the Duma or dissolve it for any reason. He then proposed an entirely new constitution, further increasing the powers of the president; this new constitution was passed in December. In this new constitution, half of the State Duma, or lower house of the parliament, is elected in individual constituencies, and half is elected by proportional representation, based on all parties receiving at least five percent of the vote nationwide.

In December, elections were held for the new State Duma. In these elections, the biggest winner was the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, which took 23 percent of the vote and a total of 70 of the 450 seats. Russia's Choice, a pro-reform party backing Yeltsin's policies, took 96 seats in total, with only 15 percent of the vote. The Communist Party finished third, winning 65 seats. However, despite the success of the more radical parties, Yeltsin continued as President, and more progress was made towards economic reform.

The elections of 1995 saw more substantial gains for the Communists, who took 157 seats total, more than a third of the State Duma. Only three other parties qualified for proportional representation seats: Our Home Is Russia, a new pro-reform group; the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, which suffered some losses, only keeping 51 of its prior 70 seats; and Yabloko, another pro-reform group, which gained 13 seats over the last election. Russia's Democratic Choice, an offshoot of Russia's Choice, took only four percent of the vote, and won nine seats.

Prior to the 1999 elections, Yeltsin announced that he would not be seeking re-election. His chosen successor, Vladimir Putin, would later be elected to the position. In the elections, the Communists lost a significant number of their seats, but remained by far the strongest party. Unity, another new party created to uphold and support the government, took 72 seats to become the second strongest party. Two other new parties, Fatherland-All Russia and the Union of Rightist Forces, both fared very well, picking up 67 and 29 seats, respectively. After the elections, at the first meeting of the State Duma, alliances shifted dramatically, as three deputy groups formed. The Communists and Fatherland-All Russia lost seats, while Unity, the Union of Rightist Forces, and Yabloko all gained seats. The three new groups, in order of strength, are the People's Deputy, Russia's Regions, and Agro-Industrial.

The new party system clearly has yet to stabilize itself. There are literally hundreds of parties in Russia, and few seem to be combining and consolidating power. Only a few parties seem to have established themselves; the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party, and Yabloko have had reasonably strong showings in all three elections since 1993. No other parties show much stability, and even the Liberal Democratic Party seems very unstable despite its strong showing in all three elections. As an extremist party, it will likely be pushed aside as the system stabilizes. Yabloko, on the other hand, has consistently received six to eight percent of the vote, although its share of vote has been decreasing. While Yabloko seems to be stable, it needs to find a way to expand its appeal if it wants to play a larger role in the political system. Meanwhile, we are left with the Communist Party as the only strong, stable party.

Continuity and Change in Political Parties, 1963-2000

Original Party from 1950-1962, still continuing to 2000

671 Communist Party. The Communist Party retained its monopoly over government through 1991. Throughout this time, the Communist Party held a very strong majority in the legislature, and, since they were still controlling the elections, they had no real opposition. The government led the Soviet Union to a great deal of economic and political prosperity. In 1991, however, there was a faction within the party that was unhappy with Gorbachev's reform agenda, and a failed coup attempt led to the ultimate downfall of the Communist regime. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Communist Party was banned in Russia by order of President Yeltsin. However, two years later in 1993, it was reinstated as the courts overturned Yeltsin's order. In the new and chaotic party system, the Communist Party has emerged as the strongest and most stable party, but they have so far been unable to reach their goal of attaining the presidency. From 1993 through 1999, it, along with its allies, held a very large portion of the seats in parliament. In 1999, when it absorbed the Agrarian Party and Power to the People! into its candidate lists, the Communist Party lost a substantial portion of this strength, although it remained the strongest single party in the Duma.

New Parties formed after 1962 but terminating before 2000

672 Russia's Democratic Choice. Formed as Russia's Choice in 1993, this party was originally little more than a group of supporters of Yeltsin's government. In 1995, it became Russia's Democratic Choice but was no longer simply a supporting party for Yeltsin, and it lost most of its support. In 1999, it became a part of the Union of Rightist Forces, which, in 2000, became an official political party.

678 Democratic Party of Russia. Formed in 1990, the Democratic Party won three percent of the seats in 1993. In 1995, it did not nominate any candidates, and it appears to have been voluntarily terminated.

New Parties formed after 1962 and continuing to 2000

673 Liberal Democratic Party. An extreme nationalist party, the Liberal Democratic Party was formed in 1989, making it one of Russia's oldest parties. It won the largest number of seats in the 1993 election, but has since seen its strength eroding. It remains, however, one of the strongest and most stable of Russia's parties.

674 Agrarian Party. The Agrarian Party, a close ally of the Communist Party, was formed in 1993, and did well in those elections, winning seven percent of the seats. It lost some seats in 1995, and in 1999, along with Power to the People!, it formed a common bloc with the Communist Party, under that party's name, presenting a common list of parliamentary candidates.

675 Yabloko. Yabloko, whose name means Apple, was formed in 1993. The name came from combining syllables from the names of the leaders of the three major parties that combined to form Yabloko. This party has been very stable across all three elections, although their seat totals have been declining slightly. This party appears to be the most stable major party outside of the Communist Party.

676 Women of Russia. Formed in 1993, the Women of Russia took five percent of the seats in the first democratic election. Its support has declined since then, and it failed to win any seats in 1999.

677 Party of Russian Unity and Accord. Formed in 1993, the Party of Russian Unity and Accord immediately won six percent of the seats in the Duma. In 1995, the party lost virtually all of its support. It is currently involved in a potentially critical merger with Unity, Our Home is Russia, and All-Russia to form a major centrist party, most likely under the name Unity.

679 Our Home is Russia. Formed in 1995, Our Home is Russia was very successful in that election, winning twelve percent of the seats. In 1999, however, it lost much of that support, falling below five percent in both votes and seats. In 2000, plans are underway for Our Home is Russia to form a larger centrist party with Unity and other parties under the name Unity.

6710 Power to the People! Created in 1995, Power to the People! had some initial success, winning several seats. In 1999, it was involved, along with the Agrarian Party, in a common bloc with the Communist Party, under that party's name, presenting a common list of parliamentary candidates.

6711 Congress of Russian Communities. The Congress of Russian Communities was created in 1995, and enjoyed marginal success in that year. In 1999, however, it lost almost all of its support.

6712 Unity. Created in 1999 as a party in support of the Yeltsin government, Unity had a great deal of electoral success in its first election, becoming immediately the second strongest party in the State Duma. There are currently plans for Unity to combine with Our Home is Russia, All-Russia, and the Party of Russian Unity and Accord into a single centrist party under the name Unity.

6713 Fatherland. Created in 1998, Fatherland joined with the smaller All-Russia movement to form Fatherland All-Russia. Fatherland All-Russia appeared to be a serious threat to the Yeltsin government in the 1999 elections. However, it didnít do quite as well as expected, although it did win fifteen percent of the seats, making it the third largest party in the State Duma. Soon after the elections, however, Fatherland All-Russia split into its component factions, as the All-Russia movement negotiated with Unity to become a part of a large centrist party.

6714 Union of Rightist Forces. Created in 1999 as a coalition of small parties, including Russia's Democratic Choice, the Union of Rightist Forces was expected to be a supporter of the current government. It won six percent of the seats in its first election. It has since sought to legitimize itself as a party rather than a coalition.


ITAR-TASS domestic news digest of July 22, 1999, ITAR-TASS News Agency.

ITAR-TASS domestic news digest of May 24, 2000, ITAR-TASS News Agency.

Keesing's Record of World Events 1987-2000 (London: Keesing's Limited).

Lentini, Peter (ed.) 1995. Elections and Political Order in Russia: The Implications of the 1993 Elections to the Federal Assembly (Budapest: Central European University Press).

White, Stephen 2000. Russia's New Politics: The Management of a Postcommunist Society (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press).

Wyman, Matthew et al. (ed.) 1998. Elections and Voters in Post-communist Russia (Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing, Inc.).

Yevdokimov, Yevgeny (June 21, 2000). Union of Rightist Forces Doesn't Want to Be Anyone's 'Pocket' Party, but It's Willing to Work With the Kremlin, Current Digest of the Post-Soviet Press.

*Participant in Northwestern University's Summer Camp for Political Party Research, June-August, 2000