United Russia Creates Post for Putin

MTBoris Gryzlov ringing the bell to open United Russia's ninth congress on Monday, where more than 570 delegates voted to offer Putin the party leadership.
United Russia on Monday voted unanimously to create a new party leadership position, which it will offer to Vladimir Putin, a move likely to cement the outgoing president's grip on power after he leaves office next month.

Putin and his successor, President-elect Dmitry Medvedev, are expected to attend the second day of United Russia's ninth annual congress Tuesday, where Putin will be offered the new position of party chairman, United Russia leader Boris Gryzlov said Monday.

Putin "has always been with the party, and the party has always supported him," Gryzlov told a packed hall on the opening day of the congress at Gostiny Dvor, a few hundred meters from the Kremlin. He spoke under a banner reading "We Will Be Victorious Together."

Putin led the United Russia ticket in the Dec. 2 State Duma election, in which it captured a constitutional majority, but has never formally joined the party.

Putin, who has said he would become prime minister in a Medvedev presidency, has not said publicly whether he will accept the offer to lead United Russia. But he said last month that the prime minister must rely on a parliamentary majority, calling such cooperation "a very capable structure."

More than 570 delegates voted to create the party chairman position Monday and will likely approve Putin for the post Tuesday should he agree to the new role.

By accepting the offer, Putin would formalize his leadership of the party and broaden his power to keep checks on Medvedev, analysts said.

"Mr. Medvedev is still quite young," said Bertrand Malmendier, a Berlin-based representative of the Center for Social and Conservative Policy, a Moscow think tank linked to United Russia.

Igor Tabakov / MT
Luzhkov, center, with Chichvarkin, in white, and Bondarchuk, second right, at the start of the United Russia congress.
The party chairmanship will allow Putin to keep "one eye" on Medvedev's presidency as he performs the day-to-day duties of the prime minister, Malmendier said.

The opening day of the congress also included a discussion of strategies to develop the economy through 2020. Putin first laid out his vision for its development over the next 12 years in a February address to senior government officials, saying Russia should become the world's most attractive country in which to live.

Monday's debate on how to fulfill the vision laid out by Putin was attended by celebrities and prominent businessmen, including film director Fyodor Bondarchuk and Yevroset co-owner Yevgeny Chichvarkin, as well as economists, pro-Kremlin ideologues and political analysts of all stripes.

Before the congress began, guest speakers and party delegates broke up into several groups to discuss democracy, the middle class and globalization, among other issues.

While many participants spoke of United Russia's central role in the country's development, one speaker, Mark Zakharov, artistic director of Lenkom theater, cautioned against the centralization of power.

"This country cannot be governed from one point, even if that point is located in the brains of an incredibly ingenious man," Zakharov said.

Senior Communist Party official Ivan Melnikov called the first day of the congress an unsuccessful attempt to demonstrate that United Russia had a long-term strategy.

The Communist Party has always supported the idea of Putin becoming United Russia's leader because it would force him to take responsibility for the party, Melnikov said.

"But one cannot overlook how petty and conformist what's happening now appears, when the post is being created for a concrete individual," Melnikov said.