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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

United Russia Seeks A Conservative Face

Some 600 delegates will discuss the future of the country's dominant political party this Friday and Saturday, when United Russia calls its 11th convention in St. Petersburg.

Party officials have said the convention's main task will be to bring ideological coherence to United Russia, which critics say is more a bundling of bureaucrats wanting to keep political power than a proper party that aggregates political demands.

The convention's most prominent participants will be two men who have conspicuously decided not to join the party and whose ideological positions have appeared to be increasingly divergent recently: Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev.

Putin, who despite his nonmembership is party chairman, will see his name receding somewhat when delegates vote to install "Russian Conservatism" in lieu of "Putin's Plan," a much-mocked brochure that has served as the party's semiofficial program since 2007.

State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, who heads the party's Supreme Council, has said setting Russian Conservatism as the party's ideology would allow it to consolidate society and reflect the party's position in the political spectrum.

But he has also said delegates would discuss Medvedev's state-of-the-nation address, delivered last week, and his "Go, Russia!" article from September.

Gryzlov has even committed the party to implement the proposals from the presidential address. "We will do everything to enact them very quickly," he said last week.

United Russia commands a two-thirds majority in the Duma, enabling it two make constitutional changes. The party also dominates most regional assemblies.

Yet Medvedev's ideas contain decidedly liberal proposals, like reducing the state's role in the economy and reforming the political system, leaving commentators wondering how this squares with the advent of conservatism as United Russia's guiding principle.

United Russia officials and analysts close to the party are adamant that there is no contradiction.

Mikhail Rogozhnikov, a leading member of the 4. November Club, a faction within United Russia, said differences between Putin and Medvedev were "nuances," while the party's basic ideology is broadly centrist. He told The Moscow Times that United Russia would definitely remain committed to social policies while being open to both liberal and patriotic ideas.

"We're talking about liberal conservatism," he said, adding that there was no room for an ideology like that of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who is seen as a conservative icon worldwide.

"She was a modernizer but we would not see her as a role model when it comes to the treatment of miners," he said. "Russian conservatism is very peculiar."

His words were echoed by Vladimir Pligin, head of the Duma's Constitutional Affairs Committee and a top United Russia official, who said last week that Medvedev's speech was "consistent with a liberal-conservative spirit."

But Alexei Mukhin, an analyst with the Center for Political Information, said United Russia's talk about ideology was just window-dressing and that it was really trying to shed its image as being exclusively Putin's party.

"So far, their ideology consisted of one word: Putin. Now they are adding one more: Medvedev," he said.

The convention will also seek to widen the party's international cooperation, with more than 40 foreign delegations are expected to attend, Gryzlov said Thursday, Interfax reported.

Bertrand Malmendier, the representative to Europe of the Center for Social-Conservative Policy, another political club within United Russia, said positioning the party as a European Christian democratic movement was an important strategic goal.

"The convention will be governed by internationalization and Europeanization," Malmendier said by telephone from Berlin.

United Russia has been pushing for more international recognition for some time, but success has been mixed.

Last year, officials announced that the party joined the Centrist Democratic International, a loose global grouping of parties associated with Christian Democracy.

It later turned out, however, that United Russia had been accepted by the organization's Asia-Pacific chapter, whereas the Centrist Democratic International's headquarters in Brussels denied that the party has membership.

Officials in West European parties have cited United Russia's lack of a clear ideology and questions about its democratic bona fides as handicaps for its acceptance.