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Russia: Main Pro-Kremlin Party Battles Accusation That It Has No Platform

It's Russia's most influential political party, with control over parliament and a membership boasting some of the country's biggest names. But the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party is widely accused of having no platform beyond its full backing of President Vladimir Putin. Faced with a dramatic drop in one public-opinion poll this election year, the party yesterday brought out its leadership to announce it is finally crafting an ideology.

Moscow, 20 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- It was an impressive display of star power: Powerful Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov and popular Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu joined Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov to address reporters at a news conference. The three politicians gathered yesterday to outline the ideology of Unified Russia, the centrist, pro-Kremlin party they head. Their aim was to combat widespread accusations that the so-called "party of power" that dominates parliament has no discernible position other than wholehearted support for President Vladimir Putin.

The move followed a dramatic drop in the party's popularity ratings in a recent survey by the country's most respected polling agency, the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM).

Luzhkov, co-head of the party's High Council, mapped out the party's "ideology of centrism." "The most important thing is for the party to make itself heard, for the party to take part in the social protection of our citizens, for the party to take part in social processes, for the party to take part in the development of a market economy, and for it not to allow these swings to the extreme left or, on the other hand, to the kind of liberalization that counteracts the interests of the common person," Luzhkov said.

High Council chief Gryzlov also weighed in, saying the party was inking a platform that would be announced after a congress planned for next month. "Unified Russia is based on basic ideological principles, that is, an effective state. Only a strong state can provide democracy and human rights in Russia. That's our opinion," Gryzlov said.

But the decidedly populist message came no closer to defining an independent position on any issue, save continued support for the president's policies.

Unified Russia's leaders avoided numerous questions about specific views and hedged over whether they had even a single disagreement with Kremlin policy.

Moscow Mayor Luzhkov came closest to outlining a stand, saying the party was against government moves to raise highly subsidized utilities rates and for hikes in state wages and pensions -- opinions Putin himself has voiced.

A question about the party's position on foreign policy left all three leaders temporarily stumped and smiling sheepishly before expressing full support for the Kremlin's policies.

The performance only reinforced widespread accusations that the party is little more than a collection of bureaucratic structures and elite interest groups hoping to profit from association with the president, who maintains a stunning approval rating above 70 percent.

Yurii Korgunyuk is director of the Indem political research group. He echoed such views. "Unified Russia isn't a party at all," he said. "It isn't an independent political force. Political power belongs to those who stand behind Unified Russia: the presidential administration, governors, the community of various bureaucratic clans, and corporations. They are the real power, and Unified Russia is only decoration and is, itself, nothing."

Unified Russia began life in the summer of 1999, when the Kremlin formed its core, the Unity party, as a popularity vehicle for a little-known Prime Minister Putin. A few short months later, the group swept into parliament in second place.

Unity went from success to success. It sidelined the Communist plurality and swallowed its centrist rivals to form Unified Russia, which has dominated parliament and sped Kremlin-backed government legislation through the Duma at a record pace.

Unity's main -- and bitterest -- former rival was Fatherland-All Russia, the creation of onetime presidential hopeful Luzhkov, who headed the organization in an alliance with Tatar President Mintimer Shaimiev, who is now also a Unified Russia co-leader.

But Unified Russia seemed to run into problems last month, dropping from 27 percent popularity to 14 percent in a VTsIOM public-opinion survey.

The results prompted some commentators to predict that the party would share the fate of previous so-called parties of power that were also cobbled together to support the Kremlin and its government on the eves of elections, after which support bottomed out.

But some observers of Russian politics say Unified Russia has most likely not lost public support and that the VTsIOM poll instead reflects the political allegiances of the country's polling agencies.

In stark contrast to VTsIOM, which is said to represent the interests of the liberal Union of Rightist Forces (SPS), the Kremlin-friendly Public Opinion Foundation this month gave Unified Russia the top spot with 22 percent support, ahead of 21 percent for the Communist Party, perennially ranked No. 1.

Indem's Korgunyuk attributed VTsIOM's figures to a change in its questionnaires, which substituted Gryzlov's name as leader for the usual listing of Luzhkov, Shoigu, and Shaimiev.

Vladimir Pribylovskii, president of the Panorama think tank, agreed that Unified Russia's real popularity has not dropped. "Thirteen percent [of respondents] just didn't recognize their party," he said.

Gryzlov was appointed to the top spot last month after a power struggle with Aleksandr Bespalov, chairman of the party's General Council. Gryzlov was previously leader of the Duma's Unity faction before his appointment as interior minister in 2001.

The reshuffle was seen as a Kremlin-led move to revamp the party ahead of December's elections by replacing the sometimes independent-minded Bespalov with a leader willing to broker compromises among the party's various groups.

The Communists came out on top with 24 percent in VTsIOM's latest poll. Liberal Yabloko ranked third with 8 percent, SPS landed 5 percent, and the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia garnered 6 percent.

No other party is expected to clear the 5 percent barrier needed to qualify for Duma seats -- half of the total number of 450 -- allocated to parties putting forward lists of candidates. The other half goes to individually elected candidates.

Analysts remain skeptical of Unified Russia's promise to come out with an ideology. Political commentator Kirill Rogov (writing in "Vedomosti" this month) predicted a dull campaign season precisely because of Unified Russia's loyalty to Putin, which he said precludes real public debate about the myriad major issues confronting the country.

Rogov called Unified Russia "an amalgam of a ruling party, the president's fan club, and a line at the feeding trough."

Meanwhile, Pribylovskii agreed that Unified Russia does not wield power of its own. "It's not a party of power," he said. "It's a party to support power."