United Russia Plans to Offer Putin Reins

At a two-day congress that opens Monday in Moscow, the pro-Kremlin United Russia party will offer President Vladimir Putin formal membership and its leadership, a senior party official said Sunday.

"Putin will be invited to join the United Russia and to become a chairman of the party's Supreme Council," the official said on a condition of anonymity, as he was not authorized to talk to the media. "Putin will decide himself what he will accept."

Putin and President-elect Dmitry Medvedev are expected to attend the congress in Gostiny Dvor, just a few hundred meters from the Kremlin.

Last week, United Russia leader Boris Gryzlov called on Putin and Medvedev to join the party. A source within Medvedev's retinue said Thursday that he would not join the party at the congress, Interfax reported.

Putin has said he will become prime minister after Medvedev is sworn in as president on May 7.

The party official said Putin might become the new party leader without assuming formal membership -- the party's charter doesn't restrict membership in the party's Supreme Council to members. He denied speculation in the Russian media that United Russia would amend its charter and create a new post for Putin at the top of its leadership.

If Putin agrees to assume formal leadership of the party, it would suggest that those inside the Kremlin who were pushing him to stay for a third term still have a strong influence on the outgoing president, said Alexei Mukhin, an analyst with the Center of Political Information.

"Control over the party that has a constitutional majority in the State Duma will presumably provide him with a check against Medvedev should the latter decide to fire him from the Cabinet, as well as some control over regional elites," Mukhin said, adding that almost all of the country's governors are members of United Russia, which also controls the majority of regional legislatures.

United Russia also threatens to hurt Putin's image, said Vladimir Pribylovsky, an analyst with the Panorama think tank. The party, he said, is broadly seen as one of soulless bureaucrats and enjoys a popularity less solid than polls might indicate.