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Moscow Times
April 9, 2003
Life and Death of United Russia
By Andrei Piontkovsky

A decade of quasi-democracy in Russia has produced a number of unwritten, but strictly observed, rules of the political game. One of the most important is that the party of power is disposable. The ruling elite uses it once every four years for an electoral dalliance with the voters, then throws it away.

This rule is both hygienic and politically sound. You can't stick the same old faces in front of the camera before every election and have them repeat the same tired line: "We're the party of bureaucratic, semi-criminal capital, and we're asking for your vote on election day."

Each new election cycle requires fresh faces -- or rather, new brands and a fresh concept. One year the concept could be "staving off the communist revanche," another year "defending Russia from the terrorists who blow up our homes." You get the idea.

All indications are that the Kremlin will break its own golden rule in this year's campaign for the State Duma.

Unity, having gobbled up its rival Fatherland- All Russia (after it was terminally mauled in the last elections by ORT's Sergei Dorenko and friends), is back with basically the same line-up and the same old concept.

The single-use rule is not to be trifled with, however. The Kremlin's decision to flout the rule this year -- not personnel or organizational mistakes -- explains why the party is now going nowhere fast.

Banners hang across our city streets. Alexander Bespalov issues his crazy manifestos. Russia's top cop triumphantly presents party cards to the country's top criminals in the Kolonny Zal. This sort of thing will be spewing from our television screens for the next eight months -- time enough for even the most conformist-minded viewer to become sick to the bottom of his stomach.

The ruling elite recognizes the problem, as made abundantly clear by its feverish attempts to come up with an understudy -- the Party of Life, death, love, friendship, whatever.

But it would take all of Boris Berezovsky's organizing genius and inexhaustible energy to put together a new party of power to replace Unity, which was Berezovsky's baby in the first place. That probably explains the spate of recent attempts to convince the exiled oligarch to return from England.

President Vladimir Putin cannot carry United Russia on his coattails no matter how high his personal approval rating is. In fact, the party's dead weight could be enough to drag Putin down with it. Recently Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov and United Russia ideologue Oleg Morozov squared off on a live TVS political talk show. The former colleagues from the Central Committee ideology department were asked to assess Putin's first three years in power. Morozov gave the president a respectable four out of five, while Zyuganov did not hide his scorn, giving Putin a two and a half.

TVS generally attracts liberal viewers who could not be suspected of sympathizing with the communists. Their assessment of Putin's job performance is probably closer to a four than a two. And the unfrocked communist Morozov was far more animated and impressive than his rather gloomy ex-colleague. But when the viewers were asked to vote for one of the two, 80 percent went with Zyuganov. Everyone has had enough of United Russia.

The only course still open to Putin is to run a "Napoleonic" re-election campaign, presenting himself as the father of the nation and appealing directly to the electorate over the talking heads of the political class. But this strategy has hidden risks of its own.

The father of the nation must periodically perform miracles for his subjects. Even the great de Gaulle got burned and lost power in the end after a referendum on some trivial matter -- something about local government and reform of the senate -- didn't go his way.

Andrei Piontkovsky, an independent political analyst, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.

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