Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

President Backs United Russia

ReutersPutin, addressing the United Russia congress Saturday, said his unexpected appearance was in gratitude for the party's support.
President Vladimir Putin made an unannounced appearance at United Russia's congress on Saturday and left no doubt that the party is his choice to win the Dec. 7 parliamentary elections.

He said he had voted for the party in the last elections, in 1999, when he was prime minister and that he did not regret it. United Russia, he said, "was able to create a group of centrists in the Duma that backed, without any exaggeration, the government position concerning Russia's development."

Putin, who is seeking re-election himself next year, said he chose to attend the congress as a "sign of gratitude" for the party's support over the years.

The election field has been muddied by the emergence of several other smaller Kremlin-supported parties, but Putin's appearance Saturday made clear that United Russia is still his favored one. The congress was held in the Hall of Columns, located next to the Duma and best known as the place where Stalin-era show trials were held and where Stalin's body lay in state.

As expected, United Russia chose Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov to lead its federal list, followed by Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiyev.

United Russia, the biggest faction in the State Duma with more than 140 of the 450 seats, was set up in February 2002 when Fatherland-All Russia merged with Unity. The two had been rivals in the 1999 campaign, when the Kremlin created Unity to oppose Fatherland-All Russia, whose leaders included Luzhkov and Shaimiyev.

Fatherland-All Russia's strength lay in the regions, and the inclusion of Luzhkov and Shaimiyev in United Russia's top four, together with the party's decision last month to formally change its name to Fatherland United Russia, reflects the influence governors are seen to have in pulling in votes in their regions. United Russia now has 28 governors on its federal party list, Gryzlov said Saturday.

United Russia has nearly always supported Kremlin initiatives in the Duma, which Putin acknowledged.

"Thanks to our joint efforts, we have managed to create both political and economic stability. For the first time in many years, we no longer have the constant threat of a new economic crisis and cataclysms hanging over our head," Putin said in a speech interrupted by applause and shown at length on both state television channels.

In wishing the party luck in the election, the president emphasized the importance to him of having "a majority of responsible politicians" in the Duma and expressed the hope that he would be able to count on them in the next Duma as well.

He said the Duma should work toward the long-term goals that he had named in last May's state of the nation address: doubling gross domestic product, defeating poverty and modernizing the armed forces.

Putin's appearance at the congress resulted in higher than usual security, and only a few journalists, most from the state television channels and the main Russian news agencies, were allowed in for his speech. According to security guards, about 1,000 people attended the congress, which began at 9 a.m. and wrapped up by midafternoon.

At a news conference held afterward by all four party leaders, journalists questioned whether it was ethical for the president to openly back a party.

The party leaders responded by saying they had not expected the president to come. Gryzlov said Putin came as "one of our voters."

Luzhkov said Putin came on his own initiative and that he did not see anything wrong in it. "In civilized and democratic countries, we see presidents and prime ministers taking part in [party] congresses. ... It was the president's desire and it is his right to take part in events of this kind," Luzhkov said.

Putin was highly criticized earlier this month when he publicly endorsed Valentina Matviyenko, the presidential envoy to the Northwest Federal District, in her bid to become governor of St. Petersburg. Matviyenko said Sunday, election day in St. Petersburg, that Putin had been right to back United Russia despite the post-Soviet tradition of the president being above politics. "I believe the president supports the party of common sense, working toward improving life in our country," Reuters reported her as saying. "I can't see how anyone could fail to support such a program."

Gryzlov said he is expecting some 20 organizations to join forces with United Russia during the campaign. As examples he gave groups headed by Agriculture Minister Alexei Gordeyev and State Sports Committee head Vyacheslav Fetisov. After the election, some of the other Kremlin-supported parties are likely to join up with United Russia in the next Duma. The Rebirth of Russia party, led by Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov, and the Party of Life headed by Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov, which are running in the elections together, pledged to back United Russia if they break the 5 percent barrier to get into the Duma.

Even though the People's Party, which from its founding in September 2001 had been part of United Russia, has decided to run independently, it is widely seen as a Kremlin project to bring home the protest vote.

The Homeland bloc headed by left-leaning economist Sergei Glazyev is also widely perceived as a Kremlin project, in this case to attract the left-wing electorate.