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Russia: Questions Surround New Political Bloc


By Julie Corwin



A newly formed Russian political bloc is set to compete in December elections to the State Duma. RFE/RL Russia analyst Julie Corwin reports that the Unity bloc's prospects -- and even its list of members -- remain unanswered questions.

Prague, 22 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- If Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is Russian President Boris Yeltsin's anointed successor, then the newly registered interregional group Unity represents his bloc of choice for December's State Duma elections. Putin himself attended Unity's founding congress on October 3 as a guest, while First Deputy Chief of Presidential Staff Igor Shabdurasulov said that the bloc has "unequivocal support" from Yeltsin's staff. And one of the most popular and longest-lasting member of Putin's government, Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu, has been tapped as its head.

Although predictions of the bloc's success in upcoming State Duma elections vary widely, the bloc may have already achieved what most analysts believe to be its raison d'etre: chipping away support for the popular Fatherland-All Russia (OVR) alliance. In a recent interview with "Segodnya," Andrei Fydorov of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policies explained that Unity's "first task is to put Fatherland-All Russia out of action and if possible, take 10 percent of the vote from them." That, he said, would push Fatherland-All Russia into third place in the parliament. Then, Unity "is supposed to try to become a springboard for the Kremlin's candidate for president."

If reports of its membership can be trusted, Unity has already struck at core OVR interests by luring away four of its members, including Primorskii Krai Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko. In fact, more than half of the governors who have reportedly joined Unity were already aligned with other political parties or movements: besides the four former OVR members, the group includes six former members of Voice of Russia, which is headed by Samara Governor Konstantin Titov. In addition, five governors out of the seven enrolled in former prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's Our Home Is Russia (NDR) have expressed their wish for membership in both groups. A sixth, Saratov Governor Dmitry Ayatskov, has expressed his willingness to support Unity and has actively sought a merger of the NDR with Unity.

Also, Unity already appears to be acting as a bloc within the Federation Council and can therefore counter any OVR-backed efforts there. Consider the recent Kremlin-initiated vote in the upper legislative chamber to oust suspended Prosecutor General Yury Skuratov. The voting was kept secret, but in interviews of senators that "Kommersant-Daily," Russian Public Television, and NTV conducted after balloting, all of the regional leaders expressing support for Skuratov's dismissal, except one, were members of Unity. Meanwhile, some of the most vocal supporters for retaining Skuratov were OVR members, such as Chuvash President Nikolai Fedorov.

However, Unity's failure to align with the NDR has prompted some analysts to conclude that the bloc will not capture enough votes in the Duma election to enter the lower legislative chamber. Unity officials claimed that NDR imposed too many preconditions. But NDR faction leader Vladimir Ryzhkov argued that NDR members resisted the union, despite Kremlin pressure, because Unity lacks a coherent political philosophy. NDR head Viktor Chernomyrdin put it this way: Unity "has no ideology," it has only business magnate Boris Berezovsky.

While Berezovsky has denied that he was behind Unity's creation, as has Unity head Shoigu, Unity member and Governor of Kursk Aleksandr Rutskoi has acknowledged Berezovsky's involvement. Also, coverage of the movement in his media holdings suggests that Berezovsky has at least a mild interest in the bloc's good fortunes. In its reporting on Unity, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" has stressed the movement's successful recruitment efforts and alignments with smaller political parties and organizations following the failure of efforts to merge with the NDR.

Such coverage contrasts sharply with the picture depicted in media owned by rival oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky's Media Most group or in newspapers close to Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, the head of Fatherland. "Segodnya" and "Moskovskii komsomolets" have reported Kremlin pressure on governors to join Unity. "Obshchaya gazeta" claimed in its most recent issue that according to its sources, which it did not identify, only six or seven governors have actually joined Unity. "EWI's Russian Regional Report" puts the tally of governors affiliated with Unity at 28, including the five members of the NDR who will maintain dual allegiance.

Some skepticism about Unity's membership list is perhaps natural, since little seems to unite its diverse members. Even the top three names on the list present an odd assortment of philosophies and professions: Emergencies Minister Shoigu, former NDR member and Olympic wrestler Aleksandr Karelin, and former top cop Aleksandr Gurov. Gurov, the current head of the security department of Tepkobank, is the former head of the Department Combating Organized Crime at the Interior Ministry and has expressed his support for General Aleksandr Lebed many times.

Even more striking for a Kremlin-backed bloc are the names of Rutskoi and Nazdratenko. Unity's congress occurred on the sixth anniversary of the day Rutskoi, at the time Yeltsin's vice president, called on Russian troops to storm Ostankino. And President Yeltsin has tried to remove Nazdratenko and only this year recalled his envoy from Primorsky Krai, whose main task was to rein in the governor. It is possible that these Yeltsin foes have been drawn to a Kremlin-backed grouping for the same reason that one Chukotka official claims his governor has signed on: additional financial aid from the center. OVR members, on the other hand, will presumably have to wait until after the election.

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