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Russia: Putin's Unity Party Reaches For Power

Russia's pro-Kremlin Unity movement yesterday announced it intends to become what is known as a "party of power," with the clout to become a lasting political force. So far, says RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini, what the new party resembles most is the previous, failed attempts at parties of power.

Moscow, 29 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- At a Moscow constitutional congress of more than a thousand delegates on Sunday (Feb. 27), Unity leaders said the movement should become a powerful, nationwide party that could rival the only successfully organized national party -- the Communists.

They also said it should play a role similar to that enjoyed by the Rally for the Republic party, which was Charles de Gaulle's chief political support in his transformation of France into a presidential republic in the 1950s.

This is also how Vladimir Putin sees the future of Unity, created as a pro-Putin movement not long before parliamentary elections two months ago. Unity scored well, with around 23 percent of the vote, coming in a very close second to the Communists. Its success apparently encouraged the Kremlin to have one last go at an enterprise that has so far failed in independent Russia -- the construction of a political party directly backing the executive authorities in place.

In his address to the congress, Putin cited the Communist Party as a good example of the kind of organization Unity should achieve.

"There are a lot of untapped [political] forces among the people and the state institutes. It's wrong to wait for the situation to change by itself. We have to create conditions where several nationwide parties function with ideas based on a modern model. You can think what you like about communist ideology, you can criticize or support it. But you cannot not admit that there already is such a party. I hope that Unity will become a real representative of a powerful political force."

Putin admitted that previous attempts at creating parties of power were failures. He said that was because previous parties counted on the state's administrative resources instead of seeking popular support:

"We have already made attempts to create parties strongly supporting those in power. But their success depended mainly on the presence of their representatives in the executive. As a result, the parties of power became parties of civil servants."

Two previous "parties of power" -- former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar's Russia's Choice and former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's Our Home Is Russia -- did achieve some success in parliamentary elections and served to dilute the anti-Kremlin opposition in the parliament. But once their legislative duties were over, the popularity of both parties waned.

For the moment, Unity's delegates seem to differ little from the Our Home is Russia bureaucrats. Almost half of Unity's delegates hold offices either in government or legislative structures on the federal and local levels. They are links in the political web the movement is weaving across Russia. Today, Unity boasts representatives in 88 regions -- only one less than the Communists, represented in all 89 regions.

Unity's congress Sunday was conducted in a familiar atmosphere of sober speeches, unanimous votes, and solemn pledges to defend Russia's interests. Despite promising political and spiritual renewal, Unity's leaders appeared to have a hard time shedding their Soviet-era habits.

The first throwback to tradition was the venue for the congress -- in the Kremlin State Palace, the same hall where Communist Party congresses took place until 1991. A sober note was struck with a long drop-cloth showing Unity's symbol, a Russian brown bear, and the list of regions where Unity is already established.

There were, however, subtle differences: while Soviet rhetoric called the Communist Party the "party of the people," Unity has given itself a more staid moniker: "party of the citizens."

In a recent analysis, political scientist Andrei Piontkovsky said that the similarities between the Unity and Communist parties are understandable. He said Russia's entire elite in political and business circles is made up of the same people who formed the Soviet political class.

Piontkovsky says that Unity members are virtually interchangeable with Communist Party members -- with the same background, social status, political instincts and even physical appearance. He points out that the new party of power has adopted some classic Communist ideas, notably the consolidation of society around common enemies -- "traitors," the West, and the Chechens.