Power Politics: Putin Elected Leader of United Russia

By Uwe Klussmann in Moscow

The pro-Kremlin United Russia party has loyally chosen Vladimir Putin as its new leader. But the outgoing president, who has vowed to reform the party, needs to compensate for his impending loss of power -- even if it means depending on the party's criminal elements.

President-elect Dmitry Medvedev (left) congratulates acting President Vladimir Putin (right) after he was elected leader of United Russia on Tuesday.
DPA

President-elect Dmitry Medvedev (left) congratulates acting President Vladimir Putin (right) after he was elected leader of United Russia on Tuesday.

At United Russia's party congress on Tuesday, supporters thronged outside the room where the "Law and Corruption" working group were meeting, while inside lawyers and bosses loyal to the Kremlin called for a "movement to support Putin" in the "total war on corruption."

Is the "war" to be more total and more radical than could ever have been previously imagined in corruption- plagued Russia? Hardly. A report in the business daily Vedomosti shows just how little the declaration actually means. Arkadi Rotenberg, Putin's old pal and one-time judo trainer, is currently negotiating the purchase of a share of the Black Sea trading port Novorossiysk, one of the most criminal of the many ports in this huge country that are largely controlled by crooks.

The pro-Kremlin United Russia, which manufactured a 64-percent share of the vote for itself in the Duma elections last December, made bigger news on Tuesday when it chose Vladimir Putin to be its new leader. In the Duma elections, the outgoing president had headed their list, even though he was not a member of the party. United Russia isnít even really a party in the pure sense of the word, says Moscow political scientist Stanislav Belkovsky, but a "club of businessmen and officials, with the single aim of gaining access to the Kremlin's troughs."

From Putin's point of view, the almost 2 million members of the organization form an association of "likeminded" people who are linked by their "love of Russia," as Putin told the delegates on Tuesday, who greeted him with a standing ovation. Putin announced that he would lead the government, and that the party was to become an "instrument of influence and feedback." The future party leader said United Russia had to reform itself, "become more open for discussion and must be de-bureaucratized completely." The party should be cleared of "casual people pursuing exclusively their own material gains," and made attractive to serious professionals.

After the party congress voted unanimously for Putin to become its party leader, without bothering with any kind of debate, Putin made his way back to the podium and promised he would do everything to "reinforce the authority of the party" and to make Russia the fifth-largest economic power in the world. Only in that way can Russia protect the "unity and independence of a land that is so rich and blessed with natural resources as ours." For that, the "spiritual unity of the people" is required, he said.

Putin's relationship with his new party was far from love at first sight. As a KGB officer he had been a former member of the Communist Party, but since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin had shown a distinct aversion to getting involved in party politics. While he allowed his chief of staff in the Kremlin, Vladislav Surkov, to build up the pro-Putin United Russia, he confided to his own circle that he didnít need a party at all. That has all changed now that Putin is handing over the presidency to his successor Dmitry Medvedev on May 7.

The office of prime minister that Putin is now to take over has long been a largely technical position, with limited economic or political influence. The government apparatus is considerably weaker than that of the Kremlin. By taking over the United Russia leadership, Putin is attempting to compensate for the impending loss of power. The party that was once controlled by the Kremlin will now become his domain.

At Tuesday's party congress, Medvedev turned down the offer to join United Russia, politely noting that the party was "very close to him ideologically." Putin can now use the party to push any laws through the Duma and to exert influence on the regional elite in the provinces. However, the outgoing president himself has stated that "all kinds of rogues" have seized positions of power in the provinces, without the Moscow leadership doing anything about it.

As Putin suggested at the party congress, people who "randomly" slip into the party are not the main problem. Instead, it is the Kremlin's policy of systematically leasing entire regions to what are virtually criminal gangs.

In many places in the northern Caucasus, for example, central authority -- as well as the United Russia party -- is in the hands of people who are much more conversant with vote rigging and contract killing than they are with the rules of parliamentary democracy. In large swaths of Russia, the United Russia party acts as a bureaucratic and dictatorial party that has no qualms about strong-arming officials during elections and squandering state funds.

As party leader, Putin will face a dilemma. He has promised to "completely de-bureaucratize" the party, yet the most criminal elements of the party are also those closest to him -- and they have a lot to lose. For example, Putin will hardly want to renounce the services of Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of Chechnya, who has used the party's help to transform the semi-autonomous region into a totalitarian regime.

Putin's decision to join the party signals an "earthquake" and heralds "a long-overdue cleaning up of the party cadres," says Kremlin adviser Gleb Pavlovsky. As he sees it, Putin the politician will need a "strict form" like the party. After all, it's not his style to act like Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, "appealing to the amorphous masses, the streets and the crowds in a populist way."

The fact that this Kremlin insider uses Venezuela's authoritarian ruler as a point of comparison, is a clear testament to the fact that today's Russia reminds many observers more of Latin America than of Europe's constitutional states.

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