Russia's ruling party tries appealing with discounts

Critics say Putin's backers use political, economic muscle

September 24, 2006|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,Sun Staff

NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia - The ground-level storefront couldn't look more like the campaign headquarters for Yedinaya Rossiya, the pro-Kremlin ruling party in Russia that controls the federal legislature and far too many regional and city governments to count.

A circular sign with the party name and logo - a bear under the white, blue and red Russian flag - hangs prominently above the entrance. Enormous color photographs adorn the facade: In one, disabled children smilingly display medals won at a swim competition abroad during a trip made possible by the party's generosity. In another, a Yedinaya Rossiya district chief is shown celebrating the opening of a local library with books donated by party members.

But this is not a political office at all. It is a clothing shop, one of a growing number of "social stores" around Russia that, through an unofficial partnership with the party, offer deeply discounted goods in an effort to appeal to the masses by way of their pocketbooks.

The stores open a window onto the nexus between business and politics in this country. And, as part of a broader push to curry public favor before next year's parliamentary elections, they likewise offer a glimpse of the political tactics used by the only party in Russia that really matters - a party whose platform is, in short, to do whatever President Vladimir V. Putin wishes.

"To us, it's a clear p.r. campaign," said Aleksandr Perov, a frustrated Communist Party official who serves in the city Duma in Nizhny Novgorod, which, not surprisingly, is controlled by Yedinaya Rossiya. "We are quite used to this kind of tactic. It's before new elections. We don't see any sincerity in this."

Yedinaya Rossiya, or United Russia, was created in 2001 by the merger of the Unity and Fatherland parties and, in spite of recent bickering over its ideology and direction, has become a monolith. The faction swept the 2003 parliamentary elections after a campaign dominated by one-sided coverage in the state-controlled media; an endorsement from the highly popular Putin further helped. One of the party's Duma hopefuls, Vladimir Gruzdev, the wealthy owner of the Sedmoi Kontinent grocery chain here, took other steps to promote victory: He had store employees don yellow badges, shirts and caps that said, "I'm for Yedinaya Rossiya."

The party controls enough seats in Parliament to push through any legislation, or amend the constitution. The governors in Russia's five largest regions are card-carrying members, as are the mayors of four of its five most populous cities.

A spokesman for the party's federal faction in Moscow said he didn't know the exact number of regional and local governments controlled by Yedinaya Rossiya. But then he offered a comment more telling than any statistic: He doubted, he said, whether many leaders were "brave enough" to affiliate themselves with any other party.

"It's extremely difficult to compete," explained Aleksandr Bespalov, of the regional Union of Right Forces party in Nizhny Novgorod.

In and around Nizhny Novgorod, a city of 1.3 million people about 250 miles east of Moscow where the Volga and Oka rivers meet, there are now 15 Yedinaya Rossiya social stores, offering everything from sweaters and suits to footwear and furniture. Similar stores have opened in at least eight other Russian regions.

Party officials insist the businesses neither expect nor receive favors in exchange for providing the party with a venue to promote and burnish its image. Nor, they say, does Yedinaya Rossiya subsidize the bargain-basement prices.

"This is to help people," explained Aleksandr Vainberg, head of Yedinaya Rossiya's regional executive committee in Nizhny Novgorod, pointing to his chest to suggest the effort is one that comes from the heart.

It has been reported otherwise. According to the newspaper Kommersant, many of the "friendly entrepreneurs" are politicians who, to compensate for losses suffered by dropping prices, have been promised the party's backing in upcoming regional and city elections.

Critics say the stores are nothing more than a ploy to get citizens - particularly the working class, who survive on low salaries, and the elderly, who survive on still-lower pensions - to feel good about and trust the party.

"In reality, it's like a thief who first stole [money] and then, to keep everyone calm, gives some back," said Perov, the Communist, complaining that the party overtaxes the poor and undertaxes the rich. "They're taking advantage of people."

Yedinaya Rossiya received $38 million in contributions last year, according to the party's financial records; more than 90 percent came - whether willingly or under pressure from authorities is not known - from businesses and other organizations. The Communist Party, by contrast, raised $2.3 million, roughly half from individual members, Perov said.

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