Echoes of Russia's Communist past?
Some experts charge that the Kremlin-backed United Russia party is transforming into a monolithic state force.
For the second time in his life, Mikhail Gerasimov is carrying a party card. A successful small businessman in the Moscow suburb of Perovo, Mr. Gerasimov is the newest local member of United Russia, the Kremlin-backed goliath that is fast becoming Russia's largest and most influential political club.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"I decided to join up because of the stabilization of political life in Russia, and because of the growing public confidence toward the party of power and its leaders," says the soft-spoken, graying owner of a company that removes abandoned cars on contract with city authorities.
Nearly two decades ago Gerasimov, then a mid-level manager in a defense factory, joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) for equally vague-sounding reasons.
"I wanted to do something in the public sphere," he says. But his experience in that ruling party machine proved a bitter disappointment, because the leadership never listened to the party rank and file. "I hope United Russia will not repeat the experience of the CPSU, to drift so far from the people," he adds.
But some experts warn that United Russia increasingly resembles the former CPSU which, at its peak, was a vast "state within a state" where all important decisions were made and then imposed by millions of loyal party members in every Soviet government office, legislature, workplace, school, and military unit.
A series of Kremlin-authored bills currently before the state Duma may accelerate United Russia's transformation into a monolithic state party by making local governors appointed by the president rather than by popular vote, lifting a ban on senior civil servants joining any party, and electing the parliament on the basis of central party lists rather than local constituency races.
"As soon as bureaucrats see that a tightly centralized power system is returning in force in Russia, there is no doubt they will rush to join the party of power," says Sergei Komokov, vice president of the independent Foundation for the Development of Parliamentarism in Moscow. "When the bureaucratic chain of command becomes consolidated into a single party, that party will dominate the state and nation. People from all sections of the elite will want to join."
President Vladimir Putin's portrait hangs on the wall at the Perovo United Russia headquarters, and party members refer to him as their leader. But, although the hyperpopular Mr. Putin openly backed the party in recent elections, he has yet to join. "There is growing speculation that Putin will take this step," before the next cycle of elections, says Mr. Komokov. "That will be the signal to all bureaucrats that it is serious."
United Russia evolved from a Kremlin-sponsored party created to back Putin in parliamentary and presidential elections nearly five years ago. In the last round of polls, with massive backing from officialdom and the state-run media, it won a thumping two-thirds majority in the state Duma and helped Putin to gain reelection earlier this year with 71 percent of the vote.
But critics charge United Russia's star has risen as the country's free press and democratic institutions have been crushed under steady Kremlin pummeling. After a recent wave of terror attacks that killed almost 500 people, a series of new laws before the Duma seem set to shrink the space for independent politics still further. "We are returning to the one-party system, where legislatures were purely decorative," says Alexander Ivanchenko, chair of the independent Institute of Elections in Moscow. "I see no link to fighting terrorism here, just the same path the USSR took to its own destruction, the triumph of the bureaucracy."