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Russia: Putin Pushes Unity As Political Centerpiece

With some 120,000 members, the pro-Kremlin Unity Party is -- after the Communists -- the second largest political group in Russia. At a party congress at the weekend, President Vladimir Putin said he wanted to position Unity as the center party of a three-party system. But RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports that, so far, Unity seems more likely to monopolize the political scene than to help create political pluralism.

Moscow, 30 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Unity was created last year to give the Kremlin strong legislative support and to elect Putin as president. Having fulfilled both mandates, the party might have quietly gone on holiday for another four years -- until the next set of scheduled parliamentary and presidential elections.

That's hardly the case, however. The Kremlin is now promoting the party it created as a critical element in another of its planned political reforms. At a congress held in Moscow on Saturday, Unity upgraded itself to full-fledged party status, and its leaders announced that was a first step in the creation of a three-party system for Russia.

Boris Gryzlov, Unity's faction leader in the Duma, said at the congress that the party intends to adopt a centrist position, between the Communists to its left and the pro-market reform bloc known as the liberals to its right. In subsequent comments, however, Gryzlov seemed to undercut that position, saying that other parties are hardly viable. The Communists, he said, are decrepit, and the right-wing factions are still far from uniting in a single party.

Under former president Boris Yeltsin, the Kremlin had earlier experimented with establishing what was called a "European-style" two-party system. The idea was touted as a way of building democratic political counterweights to those in power. But many analysts said that the real point was to reduce the uncontrollable anarchy of Russia's multitude of parties and eventually to concentrate most political levers in one super-party.

In any case, the previous experiments in two-party systems always collapsed. The parties created by the Kremlin -- known as parties of power -- lacked legislative and popular support, and simply deflated as soon elections were over.

Putin himself attended Saturday's meeting, and explained in a long speech that Unity's electoral successes must be consolidated by allowing the state to "construct an effective party system." He said that, through Unity, Russian citizens could find a way to participate in civic matters. Putin went on to describe the party as a means of promoting civil society in Russia:

"Unfortunately, we are confronted not only with the weakness of state institutions but also with the weakness of civil society structures. The party's task is to overcome this weakness and to attract into the organization as many people as possible. A political party can become the supporter and partner of the authorities only when it is itself involved in shaping power."

Many political analysts say that Putin's equating of civil society with Unity party membership implies that the Kremlin is trying to make Unity the dominant -- indeed, perhaps the only real nationwide -- political party.

Nikolai Petrov is an analyst with the Carnegie Fund in Moscow. He told RFE/RL that "it seems quite obvious that Unity is gradually monopolizing the political scene in Russia." As Unity gains momentum as the party of the authorities with all that that entails, he says, the influence of other parties has plunged in recent months.

The past dominance of single-party politics still leaves many skeptical about the success of political pluralism, yet also wary of a strong party machine. Russian commentators have been quick to note that Unity's style tends to echo, at least superficially, the style of the old Communist party.

Saturday's congress was held in the same large Kremlin hall as past Communist party congresses, now decorated in crisp blue and white, apparently Unity's colors. Speeches were punctuated by vigorous applause, decisions were made unanimously.

Underlining the ideological resemblance between the old Communist party and Unity, the daily "Izvestia" on Monday published two photos side-by-side on its front page. Under a photograph of Communist party delegates standing next to a giant bust of Lenin, the paper's caption read: "Unity in 1971." Next to it, the photo of Saturday's congress read "Unity in 2000."

Unity's leader in the Duma, Gryzlov, says such parallels are ridiculous.

"There were attempts to ignore us, we were not taken seriously -- and now, all of a sudden, there are panicky comparisons with the CPSU [Soviet Communist Party]. These comparisons, to put it mildly, are not correct."

Putin, in any case, clearly wants Unity to become the party of the masses. Integration of other parties is already well under way, with several middle-sized political movements having announced their allegiance. They include the All Russia movement and former Premier Viktor Chernomyrdin's Our Home is Russia group. Some leftists may also join Unity. Since the beginning of the year, some of the Communists in the Duma have backed the installation of the new government and supported several Kremlin bills.

But dominating Moscow political life is not enough to reach Russia's citizens, who live mostly in provincial towns and cities. That's why, Putin said, Unity is also planning to get more involved in local politics in the regions.

Putin also pointed out that the envisaged new party system would contribute to his recent moves to establish stronger federal control over Russia's independent-minded governors. He said a three-party system would also improve the quality of local politics by putting an end to isolated independent candidacies and what he called "pocket-size parties."

Political analyst Igor Bunin says that this is actually what makes Unity so different from previous parties of power in Russia. Speaking on NTV's weekly current affairs program "Itogi" Monday night, Bunin pointed out that while previous parties of power were based on an alliance with governors, this one is based on vertical discipline -- that is, using the party of power to keep the governors under control.