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Russia: Unity Bloc Holds Founding Conference

  • Sophie Lambroschini

The Kremlin-backed Unity bloc held a founding conference in Moscow today, just days after placing second in elections for the Russian State Duma. However, RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports that the gathering did little to lift the veil hanging over this enigmatic group, which lacks both a program and known representatives.

Moscow, 28 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The one theme that was clearly pronounced at today's gathering of leading members of the new Unity bloc was that they all want Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to be Russia's next president.

Putin and Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu opened the conference, which was over in a little over an hour in an apparent effort to reflect the movement's claim of action over words. In two unanimous votes, about two hundred delegates adopted a resolution stating that Unity would work to promote Putin in presidential elections due next June.

Shoigu, who headed the Unity party list in the December 19 parliamentary elections, implied that he would keep his government post instead of becoming a deputy. However, he will continue to head the political organization. In his opening speech, Shoigu explained that Unity and Putin were actually two parts of a political tandem.

Shoigu said: "A lot of people call us now the party of Putin, and this is true. We firmly declare that we support the government that conducts a clear and consistent policy in the Caucasus. The group that stands behind Putin is the only one that is not opportunistic, although some try to say it is."

Efforts to create what is termed a new party of power goes back half a year. At that time Yuri Luzhkov, who as Moscow's mayor was an influential regional boss, was slowly but surely lobbying governors and republic presidents in favor of his "Fatherland" movement.

The Kremlin made several failed attempts to create a bloc that could counter Luzhkov. Finally, under the patronage of self-styled Kremlin insider Boris Berezovsky, Unity was cobbled together by the end of September.

Again filling the image of action over words, Unity's party list was led by three persons who could be described as men of action. In his post as Emergency Situations Minister, Shoigu was seen on television saving Russians caught in floods, bombings, and other disasters. His team of earthquake specialists was shown daily on Russian television in September, digging in the ruins in Turkey.

Wrestling champion Alexander Karelin, who was second on the list, is a not very articulate giant more at ease twisting on a mat than giving speeches.

The third person on the list is a respected investigator. At the end of the eighties, Alexander Gurov was the first to lift the taboo on the existence of organized crime in the Soviet Union's officially crimeless society.

About 40 governors also supported Unity. Sometimes the affiliation seemed anything but logical as in the case of Kursk governor Alexander Rutskoi, who was one of the leaders of the Supreme Soviet anti-Yeltsin insurgents in October 1993 and spent several months in jail.

But analysts agree that in the minds of the voters who backed Unity in the Duma elections, they were simply ratifying Vladimir Putin's leadership.

Now, Unity is scrambling to fill its 90 seats in the next Duma. According to political scientist Maksim Dianov, quoted by the Russian weekly Profil, Unity "might pay the price of a hastily assembled list with a showing of incompetent show-hosts, journalists, and petty politicians." Dianov claims that the Kremlin spent the last 10 days purging the list of nonrespectable candidates.

Vladimir Gonchar ran for Unity in a constituency in Siberia, but was not elected. He tells RFE/RL that the fact that there will be many beginners in Unity's faction should not be an obstacle. He says the Unity deputies will represent a new school of politicians.

Gonchar said: "The [deputies] will come and learn. The main thing is for them to want to show willingness to work. Russia is now at a cross-road. We never had a state institution which would make a statesman, a politican, which would educate people from childhood on about what [serving the state means]. [But] this is now under way. [This is also why] the government has many flaws. The main thing is now to rear a new generation of people [to govern the country]."

Most analysts agree that Unity won't have to fight too hard for regional support. The government has very strong levers of influence over the regions, especially in those regions which depend on central subsidies. Others, like gas and oil producing regions, always run the risk of a pipeline being cut off.

Last week, some newspapers saw a sign of growing pressure on the regions in the government's decision to push for a severe limitation of regional rights to win foreign credits.

Today's conference hardly gave any insight on Unity's program -- except that it would follow the government. Even the new deputies themselves seemed to have little to say about their guiding principles.

In general terms, many Unity deputies presented themselves as being in favor of market reforms with a dose of state regulation.

The former evening news anchorwoman on Russia's main television channel ORT, Alexandra Buratayeva, is one of Unity's more prominent deputies. An ethnic Kalmyk, she beat Luzhkov's wife in a single consistuency in her home republic. She tells RFE/RL that in her understanding, Unity deputies are supposed to promote the regions.

Buratayeva said: "I think that this is the only movement which gave people from the regions a chance to defend their interests in the State Duma. Before the regions, republics interests' would be mostly represented by the Moscow political elite -- deputies from Moscow who go to the regions to get elected. Russia is like one big communal apartment. If everyone would clean up his own little room, there would be order in the whole apartment. Everyone should think about his own little plot. Thinking about global [problems] all the time means thinking about nothing."

Buratayeva promised that while other deputies would go sunbathing on the Canary Islands in between Duma sessions, Unity's pro-government parliamentarians would be forced to work.