The headquarters of the political party Kedr has no sign on the door and no volunteers bustling around with leaflets and posters. Less than seven weeks before the Russian parliamentary election, it is eerily quiet.
Kedr, an ecology party with a pro-business slant, was registered Wednesday by the Russian elections commission and allowed to begin active campaigning. But according to the party's staff, door-knocking, street-level handshaking and grass-roots campaigning do not figure prominently in its plans. The reason: These methods don't seem to work.
"People are afraid to open their doors," said Yelena Lichagina, director of the campaign headquarters. "Leaflets in the mailbox get no response." Even collecting signatures to get onto the ballot is a giant headache. "Four years ago one activist could collect 100 signatures a day," Lichagina said. "Now it is just 15 or 20 signatures a day."
The party's experience opens a window on a critical and troubled part of Russia's nascent democratic experience. Although it has established an electoral system and held regular elections, Russia has had difficulty building the institutions that make a democracy function.
Chief among them are political parties. Many analysts think the great weakness of the past eight years has been the failure to create a working civil society--the institutions that serve as intermediaries between the rulers and the ruled, such as the press, the church and public associations.
On the threshold of important parliamentary and presidential elections this year and next, building political parties has proven extraordinarily difficult. The chasm between the voters and their leaders seems to be growing deeper and wider.
Four years ago, in the last elections for the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, there were 42 parties, blocs and political movements trying to get onto the ballot for the 450-member chamber. Half the members of the Duma are elected from single-member districts. The rest of the seats are awarded proportionately, based on party lists, but a party must get more than 5 percent of the vote--or about 3 million votes--to win any seats.
Back in 1995, it appeared that the Russian political scene had shattered into dozens of fragments, some of the groups so small that they were called "divan" parties--just enough people to fit on a couch.
In that election, just four parties managed to hurdle the 5 percent barrier. This time, there are 28 parties and blocs vying for votes, and polls show that, once again, only a handful have enough public support to make it into the legislature.
There are many reasons for the stunted development of Russia's political parties.
One of the most profound problems is the legacy of the Soviet Communist Party, which turned off millions of people to the idea of multiparty politics. President Boris Yeltsin, a onetime Soviet party chief, said when he quit the Communist Party that he would never join another.
"For every segment of the population, we all grew up in a system with only one party," said Lichagina. "We still have no experience of political activity through a party. We are small children in this respect."
Leonid Gozman, a political psychologist and activist in the party of reformer Yegor Gaidar, said: "The problem for all the party builders is that the Communists destroyed civil society. Not only the civil society itself, but the background for it. We had no clubs. Even if you were a stamp collector, it was difficult to organize a club."
Michael McFaul of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has also pointed out that in the 1993 constitution Russia created a strong presidential system, and it is "less conducive" to parties than a parliamentary system.
One of the few post-Soviet Russian parties to build grass-roots support is Yabloko, a Western-style reformist party that is the most progressive in the parliament. But even Yabloko has struggled with the formidable hurdles of trying to build a new political organization.
"Mostly, people do not want to be party members--they don't need it for anything," said Sergei Loktionov, a Yabloko spokesman. "In our society, where everybody remembers perfectly well the one and only big party, the attitude to membership in any party is very specific."
Yabloko, which has the third-largest faction in parliament, has relatively few formal members--about 5,000, including 57 regional divisions. To become a member, an applicant must go through a process that can last a year.
But Loktionov said support for the party is far greater than membership rolls would suggest, because many people support Yabloko while shying away from joining it. "The society is politicized to a very high degree," he said. "Yabloko gets active help from five or seven times more people than it has real members."
"Yabloko is an attempt, a rather successful one, to build a civic party in the country," he said.
The Communist Party remains a powerhouse in politics, with some half-million members and an organization in each of Russia's 89 regions. Moreover, party leader Gennady Zyuganov regularly tops opinion polls. But the party's supporters tend to be elderly, and its base is not expanding.
In recent years, political parties have often been formed not with grass-roots support, but by the Russian political elites. In 1995, for example, the Kremlin pushed then-Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin to head a new party, Our Home Is Russia, which won a place in the last Duma. But the group was a "party of power," filled with bureaucrats and political figures, and eventually fell apart. This year the Kremlin is trying again to create a party from above--the Unity party--but many political observers say it is off to a late start with weak candidates.
Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov's Fatherland movement, which includes former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov and some regional governors, is also essentially a top-down creation.
Many other parties are more like clubs or trade associations.
Kedr, the environmental party, has a membership base among forest rangers and public health workers. Lichagina said there are 13,600 members. The group's philosophy is to "coexist" with industry and technology, she said. There have been reports of large contributions to the group from Russian industrial tycoons, including Boris Berezovsky and a group of aluminum magnates. Anton Galenovich, a Kedr consultant, said, "We have a big group of self-made moderate businessmen who have invested their own money." He estimated it would take more than $10 million to run a successful Duma campaign; Kedr has about $1.6 million for the campaign.
COMPOSITION OF THE CURRENT DUMA
As percentage of the 450 seats.
Power to the People: 8%
Our Home is Russia: 15%
Liberal Party: 11%
Russian Regions: 4%
Democratic Choice of Russia: 2%