Visitors to the headquarters of the meteorically successful Unity party today asked workers for a list of candidates the party had put forth in Sunday's parliamentary elections.
"We don't seem to have one around," one worker responded.
How about the party platform? "We have some questions and answers here on this pamphlet," the worker said. "But maybe you should go to our working-group offices."
Is anyone here to speak for the party? "Try tomorrow."
It was a strange but perhaps not surprising response from Unity, a party that did not exist four months ago and that, despite its thrust to center stage of Russian politics Sunday, seems hardly to exist even now.
The party's powerful electoral surge, which left it a close second to the Communists in the number of seats it holds in the lower house of parliament, created the basis for center-right forces to dominate a legislature here for the first time since the 1917 Russian Revolution. Yet Unity has virtually no program, no grass-roots organization and no history. It was created out of the blue in September by Sergei Shoigu, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's emergencies minister--who is in charge of coordinating the government response to natural and man-made disasters. At the time, the Kremlin called Unity "a rising star," but pundits labeled it a creation of President Boris Yeltsin, and most predicted it would win little public support.
The pundits were wrong--largely due to Putin's endorsement of Unity. Because of the military campaign he has pressed against Chechen separatist guerrillas in southern Russia, Putin has emerged as the most influential and popular politician in the country. He has been endorsed by Yeltsin to succeed him in next summer's presidential election and is now the leading candidate for the post. With his backing and that of other Kremlin figures, Unity also got powerful support in the state-run media, which lavished praise on the party and, more importantly, dumped dirt on its rivals.
Altogether, the Unity phenomenon appears to tell more about the unformed state of Russian politics than about anything the party offers. "Russia is looking for a miracle worker," said journalist Eugenia Albats. "The latest one is Putin; people who voted for Unity were voting for Putin."
Vladimir Lukin, a former ambassador to Washington and a member of parliament's centrist Yabloko bloc--which lost ground in Sunday's elections--said of Unity: "I don't think they themselves know who they are. They like power. . . . But what else?"
Strands that could be gleaned from Unity's question-and-answer pamphlet, in fact, seemed designed not to inform. Unity pledges to "build a normal society." It is for a legislature that "works and doesn't [just] hold rallies." Relations with the United States should be built on national interests; both sides are partners in the search for peace, the pamphlet says. And, of course, Unity supports the war in Chechnya and Putin for president.
Unity's election campaign also was high on the symbolism of caring and toughness, embodied by its three top candidates. Sergei Shoigu, 43, the head of Unity, was a natural choice; as emergencies minister, he had reached the public eye by overseeing the rescue of people from burning buildings. A few voters queried at polling places Sunday mentioned his apparent "good heart," and one noted that, for the first time, Russia has an emergencies hot line, equivalent to the 911 system in the United States. No one seemed to hold against Shoigu his decision to take a vacation in the midst of the Chechnya war, when tens of thousands of Chechen refugees were fleeing their homes for inadequate shelters in neighboring Russian regions.
The second listed candidate was Olympic gold medal wrestler Alexander Karelin. Not surprisingly, he peppered his campaign speeches with sports metaphors.
"No-holds-barred politics is at an end," he said, promising clean government. The third was Alexander Gurov, a former high police official who campaigned on an anti-crime theme.
The rest of the party slate was made up largely of political unknowns. In part, this was because Unity was formed so late in the campaign that well-known regional officials and legislators had already committed to other factions. That left Unity scrambling for candidates, mostly in Moscow.
The party candidate list ended up with a few celebrities, some mid-level functionaries and leftovers from the current parliament, said Vyacheslav Nikonov, a political observer writing in the newspaper Obshchaya Gazeta.
"Is it any wonder," Nikonov asked, "that all of Unity's legislative initiatives so far--the revocation of citizenship for failure to vote, the elimination of local self-government--have gone against common sense or the constitution?"