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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

United Russia Group Calls for Liberal Policies

MTStanding, from left, are Vladimir Pligin, Alexander Lebedev, an Interfax representative, Andrei Makarov and Dmitry Zelenin at the beginning of a news conference on Tuesday afternoon. Seated is Novgorod Governor Mikhail Prusak.
A group of influential United Russia politicians on Tuesday called for the party to adopt a more liberal platform in what appeared to be a move sanctioned by the Kremlin to form a liberal faction that could sideline existing liberal parties.

Vladimir Pligin, chairman of the State Duma's Constitutional and State Affairs Committee, told a news conference that the party should adopt a clear liberal ideology based on "democratic values, civil liberty and the sovereignty of the state." He predicted that United Russia would get more than 35 percent of the vote in the 2007 Duma elections with such a program.

"We want to widen the support for our party," he said, adding that the call for liberal policies would be further discussed at a party conference on Saturday.

Pligin was flanked at the news conference by a group of influential party members, including Duma deputies Andrei Makarov and Alexander Lebedev, the billionaire owner of the National Reserve Corporation, and Novgorod Governor Mikhail Prusak and Tver Governor Dmitry Zelenin.

"We think that the party lacks an ideology, but people believed in us and we cannot ignore this," Pligin said. "We ask our party colleagues to start an open party discussion and to come up with an ideology to present to our voters."

A senior Kremlin official said by telephone Tuesday that there was an understanding in the presidential administration that liberal ideas should be present in the national political spectrum.

"And if these ideas are promoted by United Russia, they pose no potential danger for the Kremlin," he said. He spoke on condition of anonymity, citing Kremlin rules on speaking to the press.

Recent public protests over the monetization of benefits have largely been directed at United Russia, which dominates the Duma and last summer unanimously approved the controversial Kremlin-backed reform.

Makarov said that if the party continued to lack an ideology, it would be doomed to end up like previous parties of power that lasted only a single Duma term. "We don't want this to happen to United Russia," he said.

United Russia was formed in February 2002 through the merger of two Duma factions, Unity and Fatherland-All Russia. The two were rivals in the 1999 Duma elections, with the Kremlin creating Unity just two months before the vote to counter Fatherland-All Russia. Unity's only ideology was to back then-President Boris Yeltsin.

Lebedev said that having a discussion about ideology did not mean there was a split in the party. "If we openly discuss serious projects the party will only be strengthened," he said.

The politicians, who as United Russia members are usually outspoken in defense of President Vladimir Putin, criticized the government over policy but dodged questions on whether the party's liberal wing would support Putin.

They said that United Russia's electoral success had been due to Putin's high ratings, and that United Russia's popularity was falling.

Prusak, Zelenin and Lebedev called on the government not to hamper the development of the country's economy, which they said needed "good" reforms.

Liberal parties, on whose political turf the group appeared to be moving in on, accused United Russia of seeking to dominate political discussion in the media.

"Showing the people a fake discussion between United Russia's different ideological factions, the party of power will present this as a real political competition between real political parties," said Sergei Mitrokhin, a senior member of the Yabloko party.

He added that such a move would also help the Kremlin to deflect growing criticism over not allowing opposition voices in the national media.

Boris Nadezhdin, a senior member of the Union of Right Forces, said that United Russia was trying to accommodate all interest groups in an effort to retain its influence in the next Duma.

"Today they turned to the liberals, tomorrow they plan to create a social democratic faction, the day after tomorrow they will add a Nazi one," he said.

But were United Russia to make an ideological stand, it would have to begin answering unpleasant questions about its support for the Kremlin's authoritarian policies, Nadezhdin said.

"I cannot imagine what senior members of the United Russia who claim to be liberals will say if asked why they voted to scrap popular elections for governors or kept mum during the Yukos onslaught," he said.

Alexei Makarkin, an analyst with the Center of Political Technologies, said that United Russia was trying to steal voters from liberal opposition parties by hijacking their rhetoric and to court popularity by discussing real political issues.

"They are trying to change their domination of the media -- from an administrative monster into an ideological heavyweight," Makarkin said. "But the ideological discussion will be very limited, so as not to threaten a split in the party."

But the country's bureaucrats, the backbone of United Russia's power base, do not generally engage in policy discussions and the appearance of factions in the party could well disorient them, he said.

Yury Korgunyuk, an analyst with the Indem think tank, said that the creation of a liberal grouping and a likely plan to create a social democratic wing in the party showed that the Kremlin had lost any appetite or ability to hold negotiations with opposition parties.

"In the 1990s, the Kremlin could strike a deal with anyone. Now, it wants to deal only with its own people," Korgunyuk said. "For sure, it is easier just to dial a telephone number and bark an order rather than sweat it trying to persuade an opponent."