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Putin's United Russia: Communist Party clone or modern democratic force?

Gorbachev calls it a 'bad copy' of the Communist Party. But the United Russia party has relentlessly trounced any serious opposition to Putin, who is now running for president again.

By Correspondent / October 4, 2011

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin seen during a meeting in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow on Tuesday. Putin has proposed forming a 'Eurasian Union' of former Soviet nations, saying the bloc could become a major global player competing for influence with the United States, the European Union and Asia.

Yana Lapikova/RIA Novosti/AP

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Moscow

In any discussion of Russian politics the elephant in the room is always United Russia, the electoral juggernaut founded a decade ago to herd fractious elites into a single tent and give them a unified goal: Support Vladimir Putin.

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Though Mr. Putin receives most of the attention, the party he founded, and until quite recently led, has moved from strength to strength. In two major election cycles since Putin first came to power in 2000, United Russia has swept most regional legislatures, squeezed the liberal opposition out of the Duma, and won a two-thirds majority that enabled it to amend the Constitution – to increase future terms of office for the president and Duma deputies.

Putin appears so confident of victory that he easily relinquished his leadership of United Russia at the party’s convention last month in return for its nomination for presidential elections slated for March. Incumbent President Dmitry Medvedev, who may be prime minister in the next Putin administration, was handed the task of leading the party into the December polls. He is the one who will likely get the blame if UR fails to hold on to its huge majority.

“Our campaign is going well, and we see support picking up around the country,” says Vladimir Medinsky, a member of the party’s central council and a Duma deputy. “Of course Putin is more popular, but we think having Medvedev at the top of our ticket this time will attract more liberal people, the youth, people interested in modernization.”

Mr. Medinsky says UR’s main causes can be summed up as “for Putin and development” of the country.

The party’s opponents characterize it as a “trade union for bureaucrats,” because of the preponderance of state officials – people who would be barred from political activity in many Western countries by conflict of interest laws – and Kremlin-crony businessmen in its ranks.

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev calls it “a bad copy” of the Communist Party that ruled the Soviet Union for seven decades.

Denis Volkov, a researcher with the independent Levada Center in Moscow, says about one-third of respondents in recent polls identify their feelings about UR with the phrase “party of rogues and thieves,” while just 20 percent see it as a party that “represents the interests of Russian society.” Yet when asked which party they see as “a real political force” in the country, fully three-quarters cite United Russia, far more than the next-in-strength Communist Party or the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

Recent opinion polls suggest UR’s popularity has eroded seriously in the run-up to fresh Duma elections, due in December. Yet it appears on track to win another immense majority, thanks to the Putin-era system of “managed democracy” that ensures independent challengers are kept off the ballot, awards the lion’s share of media coverage to UR, and – it has been frequently alleged – employs a full quiver of dirty tricks, including ballot stuffing, to achieve its desired outcome on election day.

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