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.

"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."

Old-style political culture

There are also disturbing echoes of Communist political culture, which insisted on total conformity to the party line and treated dissidents as enemies. "In our besieged country there has emerged a fifth column of left and right radicals," Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the Kremlin administration, said in an interview last week with the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda. "False liberals and real fascists have more and more in common, the same sponsors, the same hatred toward Putin's Russia, as they say, but in fact toward Russia as such."

In the past month alone, nearly 30 out of Russia's 89 regional governors have applied to join United Russia; about 20 others were already in the ranks. According to Vladimir Medinsky, chief of United Russia's Moscow branch, the party already has about 700,000 members nationwide - about twice the size of its only conceivable rival, Russia's post-Soviet Communist Party - and 50,000 in Moscow alone. That includes dozens of "collective members," such as trade unions and professional associations, who join en masse, he says.

Social work

In another parallel with the CPSU, which regarded itself as the social vanguard, United Russia officials say electoral work has a tiny place on their agenda. "Our daily work is with the population, helping pensioners, orphans, and other vulnerable groups," says Elena Khaustova, head of the party's Perovo branch. "If local people are in conflict with party policies, we help to explain it to them."

But Ms. Khaustova, a former member of the Soviet Young Communist League, insists United Russia is not out to control the ideological, spiritual, and workaday lives of Russians as the CPSU once did. "I do this work because I enjoy it, because I feel I'm accomplishing something useful. There is no element of coercion in this, as there was in the Communist system," she says.

Whereas the CPSU championed an ideology that reshaped every aspect of Soviet life, won converts worldwide, and challenged the West for global dominance, United Russia's philosophy, as outlined by Moscow leader Mr. Medinsky, sounds more confusing than inspirational: "We are a liberal-conservative party that takes into account Russian traditions and national character," he says.

Despite the slowness of Russia's transition from Communism, compared to many other Eastern European countries, the past decade has nevertheless seen some grass-roots social change. "I have my own business, my own interests now," notes new United Russia member Mr. Gerasimov. "No party is going to be telling me what to do."

Even some critics say Putin is probably not interested in recreating a Soviet-style party-state, but is toughening Kremlin control in hopes of accelerating a market-driven modernization of Russian industry, infrastructure, and military power. "The aim is something more like the Chinese system than the Soviet," says Vladimir Pribylovsky, president of Panorama, an independent think tank.

"Russian authorities have these plans, but you can't repeat that [one-party state] history. The country has changed too much," says Yury Levada, head of the Levada Center, Russia's last independent polling agency. "People may not be actively resisting, but they're not really going along with it either."

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