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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kremlin Mulls Ditching United Russia

Worried about United Russia's falling popularity after its approval of controversial social reforms, senior Kremlin officials are planning to create a new party of power and ditch the Kremlin-controlled party ahead of the 2007 parliamentary elections, two sources familiar with the situation said.

The Kremlin, however, faces numerous hurdles to forming a new party -- hurdles that it unwittingly raised by deciding to overhaul the electoral system, political analysts said.

Widespread public anger over the monetization of social benefits -- which stripped millions of pensioners, disabled people, war veterans and others of state benefits in exchange for meager cash payments -- has largely been directed at the United Russia-dominated State Duma, rather than at President Vladimir Putin or the federal government.

Unprepared for the outcry and determined to maintain its grip on parliament, the Kremlin is looking to form a new party of power, the two sources said.

Both refused to go on the record with their comments, citing the sensitive nature of the issue. One is a well-placed official in the White House, the seat of the federal government, and the other is a well-connected official in the Kremlin.

"[Kremlin officials] understand that United Russia has lost all hope of replicating the good performance of the 2003 Duma elections and are considering different options," said the official in the White House. United Russia secured two-thirds of the Duma's seats in the elections.

Details about the planned new party are few because the issue is still under "active" discussion, the White House official said. Putin's deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov -- who coordinates the Kremlin's work with United Russia -- is pushing for a party that backs the president but opposes government policies. "This way people will have the impression that a brand-new party has been created," he said.

The Kremlin, however, faces trouble in cobbling together a party to replace United Russia -- which itself was a Kremlin project whose main purpose was to secure a majority of seats in the Duma in the last elections. In an attempt to eliminate all but a handful of loyal parties, the Kremlin pushed legislation through the Duma that raises membership requirements for new parties. It also introduced a bill to eliminate individual Duma races and prohibit parties from teaming up in coalitions.

The changes would play against the Kremlin, which failed to predict how unpopular the social reforms would be and how they would affect United Russia's popularity, said Yury Korgunyuk, a political analyst with the Indem think tank.

"United Russia has become a useless party after the social reforms," he said. "The Kremlin should have guessed this would happen when it prepared the amendments to the electoral law."

The bill to end individual Duma races and coalitions was easily approved in a first reading in December, and Putin has praised the measure as a step toward making parliament more democratic. Of the 450 deputies in the Duma, 225 are now elected from single-mandate districts and the rest are from party lists.

Under a new party-list system, there would be no single-mandate deputies who could help United Russia or a new Kremlin-backed party get seats, Korgunyuk said. Of United Russia's 246 seats in the Duma, 126 were won by single-mandate candidates.

An end to coalitions would prevent United Russia from joining forces with other parties and running in elections under a different name.

"Voters easily could have been deceived with a coalition. They would have believed that it was a new party," Korgunyuk said. "Now the Kremlin cannot do this. They would have to create a new party from scratch, and this would be very difficult to do under the new legislation that they have praised so much."

Another problem with turning to a new party would be what to do with United Russia, which has 800,000 members and a network of organizations across the country, said Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the Panorama think tank. United Russia also is represented in two-thirds of the regional legislatures, and many governors and other regional politicians joined the party after Putin announced in September his now-approved plan to scrap gubernatorial elections in favor of a system in which he nominates candidates to regional legislatures for their confirmation.

"It won't be easy to give up on this well-established party," Pribylovsky said.

United Russia's popularity hit an all-time high in late 2003 of about 35 percent -- higher than any other party.

But its popularity has plummeted as the public focused most of its anger on the party for unanimously approving the Kremlin-backed social reforms, which took effect Jan. 1.

As large street protests spread across the country in January and February, United Russia deputies attempted to point the finger at the Cabinet and regional leaders.

But an opinion poll conducted by the pro-Kremlin Public Opinion Foundation at the end of January indicated that United Russia was bearing the brunt of the blame. Only 3 percent of respondents said the Duma was doing a good job, while 52 percent of respondents judged its performance as "bad" or "really bad." The poll of 1,500 people in 100 cities had a margin of error of 3.6 percentage points.

United Russia was set up in February 2002 through the merger of two parties, Unity and Fatherland-All Russia.

The two were rivals in the 1999 Duma campaign, with the Kremlin creating Unity just two months before the vote to counter Fatherland-All Russia. Unity's only ideology was to back the president.

Right before the vote, Putin, then the prime minister, declared that he would vote for Unity, saying, "Unity backs me, I back Unity."

Unlike previous parties of power, the Kremlin was building United Russia to last, Pribylovsky said. "The Kremlin thought that having a monopoly on all sources of information and having a Duma free of opposition voices would allow it to push through whatever legislation it wanted to without any public reaction," Pribylovsky said.

"But now United Russia is shaping up to be the first victim of the reforms."

Korgunyuk said the Kremlin might be able to find a way around the self-erected barriers for new parties, perhaps by asking the newly formed Public Chamber to declare its electoral reforms as undemocratic. "This way the Kremlin could pull back without losing face from legislation that turned out to be capable of upsetting its plans," Korgunyuk said.

The Kremlin official said the Public Chamber was one option being considered, but did not elaborate.

The Public Chamber was set up in February in response to a call by Putin for a civic organization that would exercise civic control over law enforcement agencies and act as a bridge between authorities and the public. The chamber has the power only to make recommendations, and human rights groups have criticized it as an effort to give increasingly authoritarian government policies in a veil of legitimacy.

Kommersant reported last month that the Kremlin was considering using a newly created youth group called Nashi, or Us, to form the new party of power. The Kremlin and White House sources could not confirm the report.

The White House official said the Kremlin was waiting to see the results of five upcoming regional elections to gauge how badly United Russia's reputation has been damaged. The Voronezh, Ryazan and Vladimir regions will vote for new legislatures March 20, while Yamalo-Nenets and Amur will follow on April 27.