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Russia: Putin's Unity Group Attractive To Both Right And Left

Nearly two months after Russia's parliamentary elections, acting President Vladimir Putin's faction in the State Duma (lower house), the Unity party, continues to refine its goals and ideas. But RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports that Unity has already attracted a motley amalgam of politicians -- from reformists to Stalinists -- whose common goal is restoring great-power status to Russia.

Moscow, 16 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- "Unity is Putin's Party." The Unity party launched this slogan last December, a week after it unexpectedly won some 90 seats in the new Duma and days before Vladimir Putin became acting president after Boris Yeltsin's resignation.

But it's still not clear -- several weeks later -- what Unity stands for.

Discussing his economic policies last week, Putin explained that he didn't wish to make them public for now, so as to avoid their getting ripped to pieces by opponents.

Even without a detailed program, the Unity faction has attracted outside forces who approve of what is perceived as Unity's ideological core -- the idea of Russia as a strong state.

Moscow-based Carnegie Institute analyst Nikolai Petrov says that, from reformers to admirers of Stalin, many politicians are using Unity's strong position in the Duma to claim it as their own -- perhaps with the hope of Putin's winning aura brushing off on them.

Petrov says this attraction is logical and more than mere desire to be on the winning side. For him, Unity represents a winning force not only in the Duma but -- because Putin is favored to win next month's presidential elections -- in the country at large. He says Unity has succeeded in presenting itself as the incarnation of the idea of Russia as a great power.

In an interview with RFE/RL, the head of the Duma's committee for local self-government, Samara reformist deputy Vladimir Mokry, was very open about his pragmatic motivations for joining Unity. Mokry worked for -- and still admires -- Samara Governor Konstantin Titov, who is running for president on a pro-reform and anti-war platform. But Mokry says that he joined Unity because he felt that his ideas on reinforcing Russia's federal structure could only be imposed through a strong pro-state faction.

"If you don't join [a faction], no one will put forward your candidacy. You can't head a Duma committee because factions and groups propose candidates. When [the main factions, the communists and Unity] decided on which committee would go to which faction, it became clear that the local-self government committee would not go to the Peoples' deputy group, where I was, but to Unity. [Unity] made me an offer, we talked. I accepted, first and foremost out of personal interest, but also because I promised my voters that I would work on [strengthening] legislation."

Mokry says it is unfair for analysts and the media to expect Unity to have an ideology since it was hastily assembled on the eve of elections and can't just create common principles overnight. But he believes that defending the interests of the state is the main common idea among Unity deputies.

Unity claims that its natural ally is the reformist Union of Right Forces, called the SPS. Yet a recent tactical alliance between the communists and Unity, which re-elected communist Gennady Seleznyev as Duma speaker, was not well received by the SPS. And the SPS's indignation over the authorities' treatment of missing RFE/RL journalist Andrei Babitsky represents another area of disagreement.

On the other side of the political spectrum, a group of young leftists see in Putin a modern -- and a moderate -- autocrat like Stalin. They are trying to set up a youth organization for Unity on the basis of their own experiences in the communists youth organization.

Malyarov told RFE/RL that Putin reaches out to a very wide audience, and that his pledge to bring law, order, and stability to Russia is the reason his organization will support the acting president. That, he says, is also why two Komsomol members have joined Unity's youth organization.

"It's not about Putin being an ideal for communists today. We're realists, we understand in what world we're working. And even if we do think that the destruction of the economic system that existed in the Soviet Union was not judicious, we understand that it is impossible and probably not advisable to aim for a return to the past. From our point of view, there are now certain priority tasks, with the first among them assuring [Russia's] territorial integrity, providing for law and order, and fighting corruption."

For Malyarov, Putin's ambiguous program is the reason why he can fit any niche on the left or right. Malyarov says that he fully supports Putin, even though in December's elections he ran on an extreme-left list that used an image of Stalin as an emblem. He claims there is nothing contradictory in admiring both Stalin and Putin because they both defend a strong state -- even if their methods are different.

Carnegie analyst Petrov says the Stalinists' moving closer to Unity is logical. He points out that the communist regime was not very ideological during the last years of the Soviet Union. The idea that dominated that period, he adds, was that of Russia as a strong power -- just the one the neo-Stalinists say they find in Unity today.