United Russia Seeks International Exposure

United Russia, having established its domination over the domestic political scene, has also been looking for some international recognition -- but without much success.

Earlier this year, officials said the party had joined the Centrist Democratic International, a loose global grouping of parties associated with Christian Democracy.

The Center for Social-Conservative Policy, one of three major "political clubs" within United Russia, has also recruited representatives in Berlin and Singapore and is planning to establish representation in Rome and Paris as well as in North and South America.

But, for reasons ranging from its relative youth and its lack of a clear and identifiable ideology to questions about its democratic bona fides, the party is finding making foreign connections rough.

Officials at the Centrist Democratic International Secretariat in Brussels, for example, denied that United Russia had even become a member. "The party is not a member of the CDI," the organization's spokesman Javier Jimenez said by telephone last week.

The Center for Social-Conservative Policy, meanwhile, is still far from becoming an international political think tank.

Its Berlin bureau has no plans to employ full-time staff or register the organization as a nongovernmental organization, Bertrand Malmendier, the center's representative for Europe, said in an interview in Moscow.

Malmendier said he had no plans to give up his job as an attorney specializing in energy law to run the center full-time and that the center currently occupies the second floor of his Berlin legal office.

The center's Singapore representative, State Duma Deputy Yevgeny Tugolukov, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the State Duma's International Affairs Committee and the senior United Russia official responsible for the party's international ties, said it was working on expanding its international role.

In a recent interview in his State Duma office, Kosachyov said the party wanted to develop foreign cooperation in three directions -- with parties in former Soviet states, in Western Europe and in Asian countries.

As for the lack of CDI membership, he said United Russia had joined the Asia Pacific Chapter, because the organization's European Chapter was only open to parties from EU-member states or states that are candidates for membership.

A senior official in one of the organization's European member parties said that even if the party were eligible to join, an application from United Russia would be met with reservations in Europe.

"CDI membership requires certain programmatic and internal democratic standards. I imagine that many of our [party] members would have serious doubts these can be met [by United Russia]," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of jeopardizing relations with Moscow.

Russia, after all, had "deficits regarding democratic standards," he said.

The official explained that the CDI Asia-Pacific was the brainchild of Jose de Venezia, a former speaker of the Philippine House of Representatives and a vice president of CDI International, who founded the regional organization in 2006.

"De Venezia regularly invites all sorts of parties, and it is never clear whether they are guests or members," he said, adding that United Russia's claim to membership in CDI Asia-Pacific should be discussed among CDI members as a whole.

"This needs to be sorted out," he said.

Kosachyov admitted that United Russia's international contacts were still being established and "systemized," as the party was formed only seven years ago.

Malmendier, the Center for Social-Conservative Policy representative in Berlin, said that establishing and maintaining contacts in politics and business was more important than anything official.

"The most important aspect is to build networks," he said.

Last June, he organized a workshop on energy security together with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, the think tank associated with the Christian Democratic Union.

But he said he also wants to maintain ties with the Social Democrats, who are part of a coalition government with Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats.

Relations with political parties in other European states are also being developed, with a focus on France and Italy, he said.

Alexander Rahr, an analyst with the German Council on Foreign Relations, said United Russia would be better off building up a coherent political "world view" and learning to interact with its members at home before going international with projects like the Center for Social-Conservative Policy.

"They are putting the cart before the horse," he said by telephone from Berlin.

To take part successfully in a competition of ideas, Rahr said, a think tank needs to have a clear ideological position, something United Russia itself lacks.

"This party does not have a coherent position on any question," Rahr said. "Instead, it constantly sways between left-wing and conservative forces."

Nikolai Petrov, an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, described the party as a "cooperative" of careerist officials and bureaucrats, whose sole reason for membership is to be close to power.

"So far, it is gray bureaucrats not politicians," Petrov said. "They do not make decisions or explain them to the public."

Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, who chairs United Russia's executive committee, said last month that the party's ideology was "Russian Conservatism."

Kosachyov denied that his party lacked programmatic clarity.

"There is [a program], which is developed and transformed at every [party] congress," Kosachyov said. "We entered the last elections with the slogan 'Putin's Plan,' which is also a program."

Yet during last year's Duma election campaign, when then-President Vladimir Putin led United Russia's list of candidates, even party members often had problems explaining what the slogan "Putin's Plan" meant.

Rahr said this remains the case, as officials "are just blindly following Putin, who himself is not even a party member."

Kosachyov admitted that the party does not concentrate much on ideology but said this was because ideology had become "a thing of the past." He argued that it had largely evaporated from major Western parties and that he did not see serious ideological differences between U.S. Republicans and Democrats.

Some of the policies of the Social Democrats in Germany are "significantly more liberal than those of the Christian Democrats," Kosachyov said.

"That's why, from the beginning, we haven't tried to define our ideology," he said, adding that United Russia positioned itself as "centrist right-wing," professing social conservatism but not meaning "that we sit down and copy, for examples, the British Conservatives."

Malmendier said that applying traditional standards to Russia's political institutions was inappropriate.

"[Russia] is not a traditional democracy," he said. "My job is not to pass on values like a teacher."

Instead, Malmendier said, United Russia should be given time to develop. He pointed out that the Christian Democratic Union was conceived after World War II more as a coalition to elect Konrad Adenauer, West Germany's first democratically elected leader.

Kosachyov said the three political clubs within United Russia were vehicles for inner-party democracy.

Rather than political factions, the Center for Social-Conservative Policy, the liberal Club November 4 and the State-Patriotic Club were "forums," fostering discussion about important topics from different views.

"First, we debate within each club, then between them, and then we arrive at an official party position," Kosachyov said.