Putin to Lead, But Will Not Join Party

MTBoris Gryzlov speaking Tuesday to the ninth congress of United Russia as Putin and Medvedev confer behind him.
President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday agreed to lead United Russia as its new party chairman in a move expected to shore up his political power after he leaves office next month.

Speaking at the second and final day of the party's ninth annual congress, Putin said he was "ready to take added responsibility and head United Russia," drawing a standing ovation from the hundreds of delegates and guests in the packed hall at Gostiny Dvor, a few hundred meters from the Kremlin.

"I promise that I will do everything to strengthen the party's influence and authority, to use its capabilities in the interests of the country's development," Putin said.

President-elect Dmitry Medvedev attended Tuesday's session, along with top party brass, prominent public figures and several key government officials, such as Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin and Regional Development Minister Dmitry Kozak.

Tuesday's session lasted less than an hour and was interrupted six times by standing ovations, most of them coming as Putin spoke.

United Russia had repeatedly asked Putin to join its ranks and on Monday tweaked its charter to create a new post of party chairman, which allows Putin to become the party's formal leader without actually becoming a member.

More than 570 delegates on Tuesday voted unanimously to offer Putin the new post.

Putin will assume the party chairmanship after he leaves office on May 7, the day of Medvedev's scheduled inauguration. Putin is expected to hold the post for a four-year term, giving him control over the State Duma until the next scheduled parliamentary elections in 2011.

Putin led the United Russia ticket in the Dec. 2 Duma elections, in which the party secured a constitutional majority by capturing 315 out of 450 seats.

Putin told the congress that he would juggle his party responsibilities with his job as prime minister, confirming his earlier pledge to head up the Cabinet under a Medvedev presidency. Putin asked United Russia leader Boris Gryzlov to continue coordinating United Russia's current activities, a move expected to free Putin from the day-to-day duties of running a political party.

Putin's decision to lead United Russia will cement his power after he leaves office and allow him to keep checks on Medvedev, analysts say.

Earlier this month, Gryzlov made what many saw a political faux pas by suggesting that Medvedev, as future commander-in-chief, would not be eligible to join United Russia. Gryzlov quickly backtracked after being dressed down by the Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Sobyanin, Russian Newsweek reported Monday.

In what appeared to be the latest example of the country's political theater, Gryzlov on Tuesday offered party membership to both Putin and Medvedev, who praised Putin's decision to lead the party as "both logical and timely."

The Powers Putin will have as party boss
Outgoing President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday accepted an invitation to lead United Russia for the next four years, handing him additional power after he steps down on May 7.

Putin has already said he will serve as prime minister under his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, but leading the United Russia party gives him more influence.

He will effectively control the State Duma, where United Russia has 315 of the 450 seats, giving it a constitutional majority. Here are the main powers that the Duma exercises under the Constitution:'
The Duma can change the Constitution if no fewer than two-thirds of the lawmakers vote in favor of an amendment.
The president has to seek the Duma's approval for his choice of prime minister. If it rejects his nominee three times, the president can dissolve the parliament and call a new election. The Duma can hold a vote of no confidence in the government. The president can refuse to sack the government, but if the Duma repeats its vote of no confidence a second time within three months, he must either dismiss the government or dissolve parliament.

The Duma can initiate impeachment proceedings against the president if a two-thirds majority votes in favor. The Federation Council and the Supreme Court then decide if there are grounds for removing the president from his post.
The Duma can approve or reject the president's nominee for chairman of the central bank. The president also needs the Duma's approval to sack the head of the Central Bank.New legislation must be approved by the Duma before it can become law. The Duma also approves the budget. The president, though, has the power to veto laws.
United Russia also controls most regional legislatures. They have the power to reject the president's nominees for regional governorships.
- Reuters

"Implementation of this proposal will lead to the appearance of a consolidated and really powerful political force. A force we've never had before," Medvedev told the congress.

Medvedev thanked the party for the membership offer but said he could not accept because the president should not pledge allegiance to any political party. Putin reiterated the sentiment, saying it would not be "advisable" for the president to become a party member. He added, however, that having the prime minister as a party leader is "a practice that is natural and traditional for democratic states."

Had Medvedev joined United Russia, he would have become Putin's subordinate in the party ranks.

Putin's decision to chair the party without joining it will allow him to remain "a sort of supraparty leader," said Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected political analyst and Duma deputy with United Russia. The party would have to cleanse its ranks of unworthy members before Putin could join, Markov said.

Putin himself has criticized United Russia but has said it is the best party the country has to offer.

On Tuesday, Putin repeated his call for United Russia to become more open to discussion and establish a more constructive dialogue with society. "It should be debureaucratized and cleansed of strange people pursuing only selfish goals," he said.

United Russia dismisses comparisons with the Soviet-era Communist Party, despite similarities in rituals and routine. During the two-day congress, party delegates rubber-stamped every proposal submitted by the party leadership. Not a single delegate voted against the proposals or abstained.

Books of speeches by Medvedev and chief Kremlin ideologue Vladislav Surkov were distributed free of charge to attendees.

Alexei Leonov, the first man to step out of a spacecraft into space and a senior United Russia official, said the party had many more "elements of democratization" than the old Communist Party.

Guests and delegates praised Putin's decision to lead the party, saying it would bring greater coordination between the government and the Duma and ensure long-term development. In February, Putin said he wanted Russia to become the world's most attractive country to live in by 2020.

"Without exaggeration, this is a historic event because it marks a new chapter in Russia's political development," St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko told reporters. "It will reinforce the responsibility of the executive and legislative powers to the population."

In a wide-ranging speech Tuesday, Gryzlov outlined United Russia's vision for the country's midterm development. State monopolies should become more transparent, he said, adding that the party would back a new initiative to support cultural programs.

Russia should start exporting refined petroleum products instead of crude oil and begin exporting drinking water, which will become a lucrative commodity in the next five years, Gryzlov said.