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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

NEWS ANALYSIS: Big Winner Unity Still An Enigma




The Bear smashed all.


The Unity bloc, also known as Medved, or the Bear, surpassed all expectations with a striking 23.37 percent of Sunday's vote, according to Monday evening's preliminary vote results.


The bloc owes its triumph to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who endorsed Unity days before the vote; to a general yearning for "order" and for new faces in politics; to an unprecedented propaganda campaign in state-controlled media; and to the active support of a number of regional governors.


So what is Unity?


Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov's description is worth quoting, as it differed little from that offered by many Russian political observers on Monday:


"Unity is a bloc that was hastily cobbled together, which has used all the modern [electoral] techniques, which has been fed by unprecedented administrative and financial resources, and which has not offered the society even an elementary program," Zyuganov said Monday. "They have twisted the arms of everybody, from the Defense Ministry to the Railways Ministry, [to win support]. They have worked personally with every head of administration and governor, and have used all mechanisms of pressure."


Unity's three leading members helped the party mold its image of being a collection of tough men resolved to install order in lawless Russia - Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, wrestling champion and tax police officer Alexander Karelin and one-time organized crime fighting chief Alexander Gurov.


Yet beyond those three, practically nothing is known about the bloc.


In its program, Unity promises to "destroy the bureaucratic system;" to end the practice of Duma elections by party lists; to support the army, the law enforcement organs, sports and the public health care system; and to "uproot terrorism." In the economic field, Unity says it will lower taxes while "increasing government's role" in the economy.


But even political analysts, such as Sergei Markov of the Institute of Political Studies, confessed Monday to have never read the official Unity program. As Markov put it, the program is "absolutely irrelevant."


"They have no political program," Markov said. "But instead, they have a general cultural attitude to power: pragmatism and authoritarianism. ... Society is tired of old politicians, it is looking for someone new and it is looking for tough solutions."


There are several well-known governors considered founders of Unity - Alexander Rutskoi of Kursk, Yevgeny Nazdratenko of Primorye, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov of Kalmykia, and so on.


But none of those governors is actually on Unity's party list - the roll call of future Unity Duma deputies. Instead, that list is a hodge-podge of veteran's group leaders, third- and fourth-tier local officials, businessmen and random professionals, including an ambulance doctor and a public notary.


The Unity lists also include a large number of mid-range show biz personalities: Valery Komissarov, the mustachioed host of chat show Moya Semya on RTR, which talks about unfaithful husbands and tormented wives; Alexander Abrakhimov, the voice of news on Radio Maximum; several executives from other FM radio stations; and TV-6 talk show host Arina Sharapova.


Most of the show biz crowd are representatives of an ultra-liberal political grouping called Free Generation, which speaks for gay rights and legalization of prostitution.


In a way, Unity's showing is the ultimate tribute to the highly personalized, image-based voting habits of the Russian people. This style pays little or no attention to platforms or substantive differences among the parties.


"I don't even know their program - all programs are the same," said Tatyana Gladkova, a middle-aged journalist who voted Sunday for Unity in a prestigious area of southwestern Moscow. "We need entrepreneurial, energetic people, who will stand up to defend Russia's dignity."


Businessman Svyatoslav Zhuravlyov, 50, said simply that he voted for Unity because of Putin.


"[Shoigu] is active, he has good relations with Putin, and Putin is our future president," Zhuravlyov said. "It is important for parliament to support the [executive] power. We are tired of every party pulling in its own direction."


Deputy chief of presidential staff Igor Shabdurasulov, who was seen as a key campaign operator for Unity, on Monday attributed the bloc's "revolutionary" victory to Putin's "consolidatory role."


Unity members made crystal-clear their intention of creating a pro-Putin majority in the Duma, Shabdurasulov told reporters. "Voters were impressed by the toughness and clarity of this position," he said.


As the Kremlin's chosen bloc, Unity had an added advantage: Analysts have long said that a substantial part of the Russian electorate are "government loyalists" who traditionally vote for the "party of power."


"A nation of subjects does not turn overnight into a nation of citizens," Igor Bunin, director of the Institute of Political Technologies, said on NTV during the election results coverage Sunday night.


Some of Unity's showing is surely also attributable to a massive propaganda campaign carried out by pro-Kremlin media, mainly the national channels ORT and RTR.


For a large portion of the Russian public, they are the only sources of information, particularly in remote and rural areas where Unity got its highest rating.


"We have not seen such propaganda since 1937," said Vsevolod Vilchek, a media sociologist and the head of NTV's sociological service, of ORT coverage. "It was at the Stalinist-G?bbelsian level."


In areas where people had alternative sources of information, such as Moscow and other big cities in European Russia, Unity did not do as well, Vilchek said in a telephone interview.


ORT in particular is seen as beholden to Kremlin insider Boris Berezovsky. On Monday, Mayor Yury Luzhkov - whose anti-Kremlin Fatherland-All Russia bloc was sunk by Unity and by ORT - sarcastically suggested that Berezovsky lead the party's Duma faction.


"This will enable him to legitimize himself in the top bodies of authority," Luzhkov was reported by Interfax as saying.


The European Institute for the Media, which has monitored the election coverage of Russian television since the beginning of November, said in a report released Monday that ORT newscasts devoted 28 percent of their airtime to Unity - twice as much as to Fatherland-All Russia. The pro-Kremlin bloc was presented largely in a positive light while Fatherland was covered negatively more than half of the time.