United Russia could miss out on the May holidays

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Vladimir Putin might become prime minister on the eve of Victory Day (May 9). Rossiiskaya Gazeta reports that Duma members are prepared to cut short their work in the federal districts, which was scheduled to last until May 11, and convene for an extraordinary plenary session on May 8 to endorse the new prime minister’s appointment.

The Vedomosti newspaper notes that not all of United Russia’s lawmakers are thrilled by this prospect; many had vacation plans for the holiday period in early May.

But Rossiiskaya Gazeta points out that they would have had to return to Moscow at this time anyway, to attend Dmitri Medvedev’s inauguration. Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov has confirmed that as far as he knows, “that is indeed the plan – holding the inauguration on May 7, then having the Duma endorse Putin the next day.”

Vedomosti explains that according to the Constitution, the Cabinet has to resign on the day of the president’s inauguration; the president then appoints an acting prime minister and has two weeks to submit the new prime minister’s nomination to the Duma, which then has a week to consider it. Putin himself took office on May 7, 2000; he nominated Mikhail Kasyanov as prime minister on May 10, and Kasyanov was endorsed a week later. The process was speeded up in 2004, when Putin nominated Mikhail Fradkov on May 7 and the Duma endorsed him on May 12. It has become a tradition for prime minister candidates to visit the Duma for consultations with the factions. Kasyanov spent two days on this in 2000, and Fradkov visited the Duma twice, in March and May of 2004. These consultations are not required by law, but the tradition has remained unbroken.

This year, however, Rossiiskaya Gazeta quotes Duma sources as saying that Medvedev might submit the relevant documents to the Duma on inauguration day itself, and lawmakers won’t need a week to think it over. “Why put it off?” says Gryzlov. “We know whom the president will nominate as prime minister. And the Duma majority – that is, the United Russia faction – has been working for that very outcome all along. Naturally, we shall endorse this candidate.” Just Russia faction leader Nikolai Levichev agrees entirely, saying it would be quite all right to skip the prime minister candidate’s traditional consultations with Duma factions on this occasion.

But LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky maintains that Putin’s appointment shouldn’t be rushed, and the traditional consultations should take place. Vedomosti quotes Zhirinovsky as saying: “Chernomyrdin was appointed as prime minister twice, but he still turned up for consultations. This will be Putin’s second time as prime minister. This will be my tenth time voting to endorse a prime minister, and I’ve never seen the tradition broken.”

The Vremya Novostei newspaper says that having Putin endorsed as prime minister the day after Medvedev’s inauguration would underscore the new prime minister’s special status – and raise some new doubts about relations between the old and new presidents.

Political analyst Mikhail Vinogradov told Vedomosti that an instant appointment would be symbolic, emphasizing that Putin isn’t going away; and it will be important to see how Putin and Medvedev appear at the Victory Day parade – this could be a rerun of their joint appearance on Red Square after the March 2 election.

Levichev’s argument that the prime minister candidate’s policy views are already well-known is described by Vremya Novostei as a weak excuse: “It wouldn’t be superfluous at all for the prime minister to set out his views on fighting inflation in the current period of global financial instability, and on tariffs charged by the natural monopolies, and many other issues specific to the role of prime minister. These will have a major impact on the efficacy of the government, which will now have to take responsibility for the state of the economy and make some sort of decisions after all – in contrast to the governments of President Putin’s era. So it’s important to know Putin’s views on macro and microeconomic policy, since he clearly intends to be the first non-titular prime minister of the 21st Century.”

A Vedomosti source in the presidential administration reports that the reason for this haste is rooted in the current “pack your bags” atmosphere reigning within the government, since this has practically paralyzed the government.

Vremya Novostei has a counter-argument: if the incumbent and the president-elect were indeed dissatisfied with the situation, they could have held Medvedev’s inauguration straight after the election results were announced – so we would have had a new president on March 10 and a new prime minister on March 11. As many sources at Government House admit, the Cabinet’s paralysis didn’t start with the presidential transition period; it started much earlier.

The United Russia party will hold a congress on April 14-15. Both Putin and Medvedev are expected to attend. Vremya Novostei points out that Putin has publicly let it be understood that the parliamentary majority should be the prime minister’s bulwark of support – and United Russia is still Putin’s party. Thus, the Duma could well become Prime Minister Putin’s platform, primarily, rather than President Medvedev’s. But if Prime Minister Putin is endorsed exactly like any other prime minister, that would boost President Medvedev’s political status.

According to polls done by the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), Medvedev is still lagging behind Putin in terms of popularity. Novye Izvestia reports the figures: 45% of respondents trust Putin and only 30% trust his successor.

However, although most citizens still think highly of Putin and are perfectly happy to see him stay on as prime minister, they wouldn’t want to change Russia from a presidential republic to a parliamentary republic. This is indicated by the Levada Center’s latest opinion polls, as reported in the Kommersant newspaper. Only 10% of respondents think it would be acceptable to let the prime minister run the state – if Putin takes on that role, of course. Two-thirds of respondents (67%) would prefer to keep the current system of government, with strong presidential rule.

The same poll indicates that United Russia is perceived by the public as “lacking legitimacy of its own, separately from Putin.” The party will devote its ninth congress to discussing the National Development Strategy to 2020. Kommersant reports that in the lead-up to the congress, United Russia has announced the opening of an Economic Legislation Institute which will work on developing laws required to implement the 2020 Strategy.

Yevgeny Fedorov, chairman of the Duma’s economic policy committee, says that the government and the president are “developing their strategy – there will be a step-by-step plan, and specific laws will be targeted within that plan.” According to Fedrov, the most important of these laws “will be written by experts at the Economic Legislation Institute.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports that the 2020 Strategy Forum is a fundamentally new and extremely ambitious project for United Russia. Essentially, it promises to become “Russia’s version of the Davos Economic Forum.” It’s interesting to note that the congress will be attended by some people who have not worked with United Russia before, and are not members of the party, but have their own viewpoints on national development strategy. Nezavisimaya Gazeta names four of the eight panel moderators at the congress: Olga Dergunova, former head of Microsoft’s Russia-CIS office, now a VneshTorgBank executive; Evroset chief Yevgeny Chichvarkin; lawyer Anatoly Kucherena; and Valery Fadeyev, editor-in-chief of Expert magazine.

What’s more, as Kommersant reports, United Russia has acquired another debating arena: a conservative-patriotic club. Andrei Isayev, chairman of the Duma’s social policy committee, says that United Russia “is supported by an overly large majority” which includes people with diverse ideological preferences. According to Isayev, the party’s November 4 Club caters to “business and the liberal intelligentsia,” the Social-Conservative Policy Center (TsSKP) is for “the unions, the middle class, and all proponents of a social state,” and “the conservative-patriotic club is for strong-statists, the security and law enforcement agencies, and traditionalists.”

TsSKP coordinator Yuri Shuvalov maintains that the three ideologically-distinct arenas will come up with “new and unexpected ideas” and solutions for the party’s use.

Analysts have their doubts about that. Boris Makarenko, deputy director of the Political Techniques Center, says that these clubs are only useful in ensuring that “at least some debate is possible within this party.” But none of the clubs can “develop its own plan of action and impose it on the whole party.” When it comes to voting in the Duma, United Russia will ignore its clubs and vote “according to the Kremlin administration’s orders.”

Gorbachev Foundation analyst Andrei Ryabov says that by establishing clubs to suit every ideological perspective, the party bureaucracy is “safeguarding itself, in order to be prepared for any conceivable policy turnaround by the new masters of the Kremlin.” According to Ryabov, the public demonstration that United Russia is prepared to generate ideas for the 2020 Strategy in clubs and institutes indicates the party’s determination to attract the new Kremlin team’s attention, although that team is already showing some interest in other arenas.

Stanislav Belkovsky, president of the National Strategy Institute, told Kommersant that the formation of the clubs “has nothing to do with the party’s ideology or its determination to be needed by the Kremlin” – it is only “a means of redistributing party funding, nothing more.”

United Russia’s financial situation has been a topic of discussion in the foreign and Russian media since Forbes magazine published a list of billionaires in government worldwide.

According to a Forbes article (translated into Russian at Inopressa.ru), Russia leads the list this year. Its parliament now has 12 billionaires, with a total worth of $41 billion. Beside them are some less affluent lawmakers, with fortunes of only hundreds of millions.

Russia’s billionaires don’t confine themselves to the federal parliament: the executive branch includes at least one billionaire regional leader, and the Mayor of Moscow is married to a billionaire.

At the top of the heap is Federation Council member Suleiman Karimov, 42. This “young and brash stock market mogul” (with a fortune of $17.5 billion) spent eight years in the lower house – until President Putin declared last year that he didn’t want to see billionaires in the Duma any more.

Next is Gleb Fedotov, 41. He entered parliament with a fortune of $3.9 billion in 2005. Fedotov made his fortune in the Alfa Group empire, and is now involved with Alfa’s telecommunications holding company, Altimo. As a Duma member, he lobbied to relax state regulation for big business. He was regarded as a key figure in Alfa Group’s lobbying efforts with the federal government, until his relations with Alfa deteriorated recently.

Others include former banker Sergei Pugachev, 45, with a fortune of $2 billion; Farkhad Akhmedov, 52, the “feisty and outspoken” founder of NorthGas ($1.4 billion); and Dmitri Ananyev, 41, who made his $2.3 billion selling ERP software.

Acording to Forbes, most of the billionaires “are affiliated with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party – compared by some political pundits with the old Communist Party: Membership has many privileges.”

But no one in United Russia itself is counting billionaires. Andrei Vorobiev, chairman of the party’s central executive committee, was asked by Rossiiskaya Gazeta to comment on rumors that United Russia is Russia’s richest party. Vorobiev said: “The most important form of wealth for a political party is voter confidence. In that sense, we are indeed the richest party in Russia.”

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