What's behind Putin's drive for a 'unified civil front' in Russia
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called for merger of political parties and social groups. Some observers say it's a bid to boost poll numbers, while others see it as throwback to Soviet-era engineering.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has observers scratching their heads over his dramatic appeal to build a "unified civil front" of political parties and social groups to confront an unspecified national dilemma.Skip to next paragraph
The idea sounds baffling since Russia, despite its various issues, does not appear to face a looming crisis that would justify putting aside political differences for the common good.
Some experts scoff that the unmentioned emergency is Mr. Putin's own poll numbers. Putin, who is widely suspected to be eyeing a return to the presidency, saw his numbers plunge in recent polls and rating for the party he leads, United Russia, also dropped.
But a few critics warn darkly that Putin may be seeking to reshape Russian political culture into one of forced social unity similar to the former Soviet system, in which all of civil society – including media, trade unions, the church, youth, women's groups, even sports clubs – were held in captive orbits around the all-powerful ruling party.
"I propose the creation of something that in practical politics is called a unified civil front, an organization to unify the efforts of various political forces ahead of major events of political character," Putin told a conference of United Russia in the central Russian city of Volgograd last Friday.
'Fresh ideas, fresh proposals'
The front should recruit into its ranks all organizations and people "who are united by the idea to strengthen our country and by the wish to search for the most optimal ways of solving current problems," he added.
Putin spent much of the long weekend (Monday was Victory Day, a major holiday in Russia) meeting with business and social leaders to test the idea, which would include opening up as much as a third of United Russia's candidate lists to nonparty members affiliated with the new front. "United Russia needs an inflow of fresh ideas, fresh proposals, and fresh faces," he told journalists.
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United Russia, the state-backed political behemoth whose membership is packed with officials, has given Putin near undisputed control over most legislatures in Russia for nearly a decade, including a two-thirds majority in the Duma. But lately its public approval rating has slumped dramatically. The party, which won 67 percent in 2007 Duma elections, was supported by just 43 percent of Russians, according to an April survey by the independent Public Opinion Fund (FOM).
"Putin [who leads United Russia] aims to secure his own position in case of a poor showing by the party in the coming Duma elections," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "The idea is to add some fresh faces, so that the candidate list doesn't just consist of the same old dull bureaucrats and corrupt officials. It's just an electoral scheme."
But it also reflects Putin's personal ambitions, he adds. The former president has never seen himself as an ordinary politician, but rather as a "national leader" who sits astride society and speaks for all Russians.
"There is a kind of Czarist psychology at work here," says Mr. Petrov. "The Czar must be the leader of all, not just the representative of one political party or tendency."