United Russia won’t be left unsupervised

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Russia’s wave of pro-Putin rallies is culminating in the launch of a movement called For Putin (Za Putina). This movement will be established at a nationwide forum held in the city of Tver on November 15. Analysts predict that For Putin could become a significant political force, possibily used to nominate Vladimir Putin’s designated successor in next year’s presidential election – and to oversee the United Russia party in the name of the people.

Gazeta.ru has done some investigative reporting to identify who is behind the forum of Putin supporters in Tver. Several sources from regional administrations told Gazeta.ru that their regional leaders received letters from the Kremlin administration and presidential envoys last week, containing detailed instructions for selecting and sending delegates to the Tver forum.

“They asked us to select some sensible people – ten or so people from community groups,” said an informed source from the administration of a region in the Southern federal district. According to this source, the regional administration covered the travel costs to Tver and the forum organizers are paying for accommodation at a country hotel outside Tver.

A source close to United Russia told the Vedomosti newspaper that the city of Tver was chosen as the forum location because the President’s parents, Vladimir Putin and Maria Shelomova, were originally from the Tver region.

The Kommersant newspaper reports that the forum is being organized by For Putin, an initiative group of Tver residents. This group organized the first of last month’s pro-Putin rallies, using the slogan “Tver – trust Putin.”

It’s worth noting that the organizers of this rally have been accused of using administrative resources. The Union of Right Forces (SPS) filed a complaint with the Prosecutor General’s Office, citing a copy of a directive issued by the Tver municipal administration’s education department: “On participation by teachers and school students in the nationwide campaign expressing support for the President’s policy course.” According to the Tver News Agency, this contained a demand for senior high school students and teachers to be sent to the pro-Putin rally.

Two sources from the Murmansk regional administration also told Gazeta.ru that regional administrations are directly involved in preparations for the Tver forum. According to one of these sources, a meeting at the presidential envoy’s office in late October was attended by all regional leaders from the North-Western federal district: “In the presence of the governors, it was explained that seemingly-spontaneous rallies would be held in the regions. But no representatives of the authorities should be visible at these events – everything should look as if non-governmental organizations are in charge.”

According to the source, chief federal inspectors were assigned responsibility for arranging the rallies: “And after these events, regional leaders were instructed to establish initiative groups comprising four or five people who had taken part in the pro-Putin rallies.”

Journalists aren’t the only ones who doubt that the rallies are a spontaneous grass-roots phenomenon. In a Levada Center opinion poll (November 9-12), 43% of respondents said that all these events are being organized by the authorities.

Gazeta.ru reports that prominent lawyer Pavel Astakhov, never affiliated with any party, will be elected as the new movement’s leader. The Kommersant newspaper has some different information: the For Putin movement won’t have an individual leader as yet; it will set up a board with one or two representatives from each region.

In addition to founding the movement as such, the organizers intend to adopt an appeal to the people at the forum in Tver. According to Kommersant, one of the ideas the new movement is supposed to promote is civil society oversight for the authorities. “The movement will certainly have some oversight functions. We shall monitor how United Russia goes about keeping its campaign promises,” said Moscow initiative group member Yevgenia Poplavskaya, head of the Order of Mercy and Social Security.

Yevgeny Minchenko, head of the International Institute of Political Evaluations, suggests that Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration, proposed that For Putin should play this role – so “inconveniently” for United Russia. Minchenko maintains that Surkov is directly involved in coordinating United Russia and the new movement. “As far as I can tell, some tension has arisen between Vladislav Surkov and United Russia leader Boris Gryzlov. This is due to rivalry: who’s the best Putin supporter, who can claim credit for United Russia’s victory?” said Minichenko. “The aim is to show that Putin, not the party, plays the decisive role in this election. And the new movement will facilitate that.”

On November 21, delegates from the Tver forum will attend a national forum of Putin supporters at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. Putin’s official accreditation as a Duma candidate will be presented to him at this event.

The New Times magazine offers its own answer to the question of why the Kremlin needs the For Putin movement. According to The New Times, after the Kremlin was shaken by a conflict among its security and law enforcement (siloviki) clans in early October, President Putin decided to establish a consensus body comprising the leaders of the rival factions. He instructed this conclave to analyze options for a solution to the problem of how Putin can “leave in order to stay”: that is, how he can step down from the presidency while retaining real power. The conclave came up with a plan, and the launch of the For Putin movement is its first phase.

The next phase will extend the “spontaneous network movement” to include prominent “opinion leaders,” then the United Russia party (which is actually organizing the whole thing), and (finally) representatives of the main groups in the federal elite, state corporations, and the security and law enforcement agencies.

This will help the For Putin moveemnt act as a booster rocket for United Russia in the parliamentary election.

According to The New Times, the conclave’s post-election plan is for United Russia to oversee the Duma’s constitutional majority and the Cabinet. Duma committees will be expanded into counterparts of departments in the CPSU Central Committee, with strict horizontal linkage between specific committees and the corresponding federal ministries.

A different role is reserved for the For Putin movement, according to The New Times. Firstly, it will serve as a vessel for the electoral resources secured by Putin on the basis of the Duma election outcome, providing a foundation for his new legitimate status of “national leader” and his political “reload” even before a new president is elected.

Secondly, For Putin could be used as an instrument for selecting, grooming, and publicizing Putin’s successor; and from now on, the successor’s identity doesn’t really matter at all – it could be anyone.

Thirdly, For Putin is perfectly suited to be a non-party platform where the Kremlin can announce its further plans to establish a new configuration for state administration after May 2008.

Fourthly, by retaining control over this movement, Putin will be able to freely choose and apply various intervention tools in the event of any unwelcome developments after May 2008 – or in the event that he decides to go ahead with constitutional reforms after all, or needs to send his successor the message that he’s lingered in the Kremlin too long.

The New Times comments that this solution (in contrast to previously-discussed scenarios like installing a technical president, having Putin become prime minister, or Putin as Duma speaker) has two indisputable advantages. First of all, it’s a comprehensive, integrated solution that wouldn’t make Putin highly dependent on any state institution after May 2008. Most importantly, it is flexible rather than absolute.

Dmitri Badovsky, deputy director of the Social Systems Institute, discusses For Putin and its possibilities in an article for the Vedomosti newspaper.

In Badovsky’s view, the parliamentary election will give Putin a mandate as national leader. Putin could institutionalize his new mandate by transferring it to United Russia: “And then we would certainly see United Russia nominate the successor as a presidential candidate, while the parliamentary majority forms the government, and Putin probably becomes the leader of United Russia.”

In this scenario, the For Putin movement would probably be merged with United Russia after a while, as a kind of “Putin call-up,” enabling the new leader to bring in fresh blood and reorganize the party.

Another option would not involve such overt reliance on parties and institutions. Putin would remain a charismatic leader, relying on public support and not becoming a party member. In this case, the For Putin would be essential: it could be used as a “magic box” for nominating the successor, and as infrastructure for initiative groups and signature-collecting if circumstances are ripe for amending the Constitution or restoring Putin to the Kremlin.

This latter option might be behind the decision to postpone the official announcement of the presidential election date. Kommersant reports that the Federation Council will make the announcement on November 26 rather than November 23. Thus, the Kremlin’s presidential candidate will be able to start his nomination process even before the Duma campaign concludes, by relaying on the new For Putin movement. And even if United Russia subsequently endorses this candidate, he won’t be formally dependent on the party and its parliamentary election results.

According to Badovsky, the launch of this movement means there will be a new question in Russian politics over the next few years: will For Putin take over United Russia, or vice versa?

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