IVANOVO, RUSSIA — Before heading to the Turin Winter Olympics last week, three top stars from Russia's national hockey team made a public show of joining United Russia, the pro-Kremlin party that is rapidly taking over political power at all levels.
"We have a reason to celebrate," party leader and State Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov said in a message that echoed Soviet-era propaganda. "Ahead of the decisive battle, they decided to join the party."
Athletes aren't the only ones who are signing up to join UR, whose only political commandment is unequivocal support for President Vladimir Putin. Experts say about two-thirds of Russia's civil servants, 70 of 89 regional governors, and thousands of celebrities and leading businesspeople have joined in recent years.
Supporters say that the party's success is democracy in action. But critics see the rise of UR, which now controls more than half of all regional legislatures, as the culmination of President Putin's efforts to reduce Russian democracy to a pro-Kremlin choir.
"There is a crisis of political parties in Russia, and UR is rapidly filling the vacu-um," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the Center for Political Information, an independent Moscow think tank. "The party that controls state resources will be a powerful force. No one wants to oppose it."
Following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Communist Party, the 19-million member monolith that ruled the USSR, leaders made successive attempts to create a "party of power" that would carry the Kremlin into the country's parliamentary arena.
But parties started by former President Boris Yeltsin never got more than 15 percent of the vote; the opposition Communists and liberal parties dominated the State Duma and most regional bodies during the 1990s.
That changed under Putin. United Russia took two-thirds of the Duma's seats in 2003, while two liberal parties were squeezed out of parliament altogether.
Here in Ivanovo, a struggling city about 200 miles northeast of Moscow, the party swept December elections for mayor, municipal duma, and regional duma after Mr. Putin appointed a new governor - and UR member - Mikhail Menn.
"People vote for us because they pray for an end to the crisis in this country," says Alexander Koziro, head of the city's UR branch. "They want Russia to be a great power again and see that only President Putin, with the people behind him, can accomplish that."
Nikolai Lobayev, a local businessman and aspiring politician, joined the party last year. "It's hard to find anyone with ambition who isn't in UR," he says. "United Russia has all the power right now, and it's awfully difficult to ignore that."
A few people in Ivanovo protest that UR's victory, which gave it three-quarters of the seats in the regional legislature, was less about fair competition than Soviet-style monopolization of resources and media. "United Russia is not a party in any normal sense: it's an organized wing of the bureaucracy with all the power of the state behind it," says Anatoly Yevgeniyev, editor of a business magazine here who has started an "Anti-United Russia Association" with a few kindred thinkers. "We feel a bit like early Christians. Anyone who opposes UR is bound to look quixotic to the public."
Mr. Yevgeniyev claims UR had five times more media coverage than all other parties combined; that its members dominated the electoral commission; and that it used Kremlin funds to hand out preelection goodies to impoverished villagers. "This is like Soviet politics with a slight democratic facade," he says. "People vote the way they're told to vote, and they're so busy surviving that they no longer care whether it's fair or not."
Mr. Koziro says that Putin "sent the people of Ivanovo a signal" by appointing a UR member as local governor. But he insists the party fairly won the elections with no media advantage. He admits UR paid to build more than 100 sports facilities for local schools and other public works before the voting, but says the funds were donated by private-sector sponsors. "Some reproach us for buying votes, but why don't other parties make similar efforts to help the people?" he asks. "How can we be blamed for doing good works?"
A recent Russian law permits most officials, other than members of the security services, to join parties. Koziro says "a great many" civil servants in Ivanovo have joined UR. A party "support group," established for police, has some 12,000 members.
Russia heads into fresh parliamentary elections in 2007, followed early the next year by presidential polls. Experts say UR's lack of ideology, other than backing Putin, could cause it to fracture as it grows. "United Russia is filled with factions that wouldn't be together in any normal party," says Nikolai Petrov, a regional expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "And it hasn't got any real influence; it's just one face of Kremlin power. Putin isn't even a member of UR."
Koziro agrees that, because there's no organized opposition in Ivanovo, the party will be held responsible for any missteps. "This is the price of power," he says cheerfully. "We were struggling for this, and now we must deliver. We're ready to face that."