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Monday, 20 December, 1999, 16:08 GMT
Sudden rise of the Unity party

Winning combination: Putin (left) and Shoygu Winning combination: Mr Shoygu (right) and Mr Putin

Rarely can a party with so few policies have performed so well in its first parliamentary election as Unity has done.

Unity's initials spell the Russian word for Bear
Three months ago, Unity did not even exist. It was created in October to counter the threat which the Kremlin perceived from the the Fatherland-All Russia alliance.

Unity relied on a mud-slinging campaign to discredit the alliance, backed up by mass popular support for the military operation in Chechnya.

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Its leaders also exercised their positions close to the seat of power to exert pressure on both regional governors and the media.

The governors and the media passed the message on to the electorate.

Unity's hand in the new State Duma will be strengthened by alliances with other pro-Kremlin groups, notably the party of young economic reformers, the Union of Right-Wing Forces.

This party, led by another former Prime Minister, Sergei Kiriyenko, campaigned on the slogan, "Putin for President, Kiriyenko for Prime Minister!".

The result certainly increases Mr Putin's chances of fulfilling his side of that aim.

Spotlight on Shoygu

The unexpectedly good showing of Unity has thrown the spotlight on a politician not well known outside Russia - the party's leader Sergey Shoygu, the Minister for Emergency Situations in the present government.

Shoygu handles Russia's emergencies Mr Shoygu handles Russia's emergencies
He is from an ethnic minority, a Tuvan, and he impressed many people by the quiet and efficient way he dealt with the aftermath of the apartment bloc bombings in the summer which left 300 dead.

Although the Unity party has only existed for a few months, experts in Moscow suggest it has been in the planning stage for some time.

With support for President Yeltsin at an all-time low and the prospect of his political enemies taking over the Kremlin, Mr Yeltsin's advisers planned a two-pronged counter-attack.

Kremlin strategy

On the one hand Vladimir Putin became prime minister, a former spy with a tough image on security, and the president introduced him as his favoured successor.

When the apartment bomb attacks shocked Russia this year, Mr Putin pinned the blame on Chechen "terrorists" and promptly launched a military operation against Chechnya.

That won him immediate and immense popularity.

But if Mr Putin was to get anywhere, he needed allies in parliament. And that is where the second prong - the Unity bloc - came in.

It is also dubbed 'The Bear' because its initials spell 'Medved' - the Russian word for Bear.

It was a hastily assembled collection of various non-aligned politicians, some of whom already belonged to other parties.

Its most obvious attribute was its leader, the young and good-looking Mr Shoygu.

But it only really took off electorally when Prime Minister Putin gave it his blessing less than a month before the Duma election.

Mr Shoygu may be the leader, but it is seen very much as Vladimir Putin's party.

As long as there is no disaster in Chechnya, it looks as if this combination - Putin and Shoygu - could be a familiar one in Russian politics for some time to come.

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See also:
20 Dec 99 |  Europe
Analysis: Putin, next stop president?
20 Dec 99 |  Europe
Poll boost for Russian PM
03 Dec 99 |  Europe
The doubts over Russia's democracy

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