- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2006

MOSCOW — Just four years after its founding, President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party is growing twice as quickly as the Communist Party under the Bolsheviks. And like the Communist Party of the past century, it has become the surest path to success in Russian society.

The party formed by the Kremlin to support Mr. Putin registered its 1 millionth member earlier this year, reaching a milestone that took the Bolsheviks eight years after the Russian Revolution.

More than two-thirds of the country’s federal and regional parliamentarians, and 70 of 89 regional governors are members of United Russia. Thousands of civil servants, celebrities and leading business people have joined in recent years as the party has grown into a dominant force in national and local politics.

Party officials have begun an ambitious program to sign up another million members in time for the 2007 parliamentary elections and 2008 presidential vote, when a successor to Mr. Putin will be chosen.

Supporters say United Russia’s success is proof of democracy in action in Russia.

“United Russia is so popular because the people know that it is promoting the best interests of Russian citizens,” said Oleg Morozov, the deputy leader of the party’s faction in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament.

But critics say that United Russia is little more than a Kremlin fan club and that through it Mr. Putin is essentially re-creating the Soviet Communist Party system. At its height, the Communist Party had 22 million members, and joining was considered essential for anyone to advance his or her career.

“United Russia is not a real political party and is not even truly popular,” said Sergei Mitrokhin, the deputy leader of the liberal Yabloko opposition party. “It is only successful because it has the full resources of the state behind it and because people are forced to join the party.”

Political parties were slow to develop in Russia after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Throughout the 1990s, Russian parliaments were a chaotic mix of communists, liberals and nationalists, with none able to win over a significant portion of the voters.

That changed under Mr. Putin, who created United Russia by merging the Unity and Fatherland-All Russia parties. With the full backing of the Kremlin, United Russia swept to power in the 2003 elections to the State Duma, winning more than two-thirds of the seats. In regional elections earlier this year, United Russia won majorities in all eight local legislatures up for grabs.

At the same time, membership in the party has surpassed all other political parties combined.

United Russia’s nearest rival, the Communist Party, has about 180,000 members, many of them pensioners pining for the days of the Soviet Union. The nationalist Rodina (Motherland) party has 105,000 members, while the Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces parties barely have 50,000 members, the minimum required under a law on political parties passed last year.

United Russia’s platform is ostensibly based on a philosophy its leaders call “social conservatism” — an improbable mix calling for both a strong, centralized state and free-market reforms.

But even party members acknowledge that most of United Russia’s support stems from its close connection to Mr. Putin, who is widely popular, and its reputation as the “party of power.”

“United Russia has had brilliant successes in elections, and a lot of that is because President Putin is so popular,” Mr. Morozov said. “And we don’t hide the fact that the party puts its members forward to be in the leading positions in all spheres of society, including in business.”

Financial newspaper Kommersant reported earlier this year that joining United Russia is becoming essential for anyone dealing with the government.

“Like membership in the Communist Party once was, membership in United Russia is now a way of making it easier to solve all sorts of problems, from getting promotions for state officials to settling conflicts with the police and tax structures for businessmen,” the newspaper reported.

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