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.
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.
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."
Some say it may be a deeper attempt to reengineer society. "This reminds of Mussolini's idea of corporatism, of bringing all social forces under the control of one man," says Andrei Kolesnikov, opinion editor of the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta. "It has these disturbing connotations, though I think it's just a scheme to help win elections, and it will fall apart after that. At least I hope so."
Experts differ over how seriously the drop in Putin's personal approval rating might affect his own chances of winning the upcoming presidential polls, should he choose to run. According an April survey by the independent Public Opinion Fund, Putin remains Russia's single most popular leader – as he has been for more than a decade – with 53 percent public support, down from 69 percent in January 2010.
Growing Putin-Medvedev divide
The same poll shows that popularity for Putin's only conceivable rival for the endorsement of the Kremlin establishment, President Dmitry Medvedev, has fallen further during the same period, from 62 percent to just 46 percent last month.
Strains have appeared in the previously amicable "tandem" arrangement under which Mr. Medvedev and Putin have ruled Russia for the past 3 years, leading to speculation that Medvedev might break openly with his former patron and even, perhaps, challenge him in a real election.
But under the political system of "managed democracy" built by Putin, that seems unlikely to happen.
Over the past several years, Russian elections have been tightly stage-managed affairs. They include barring troublesome opposition contenders from the ballot, concentrating state resources – including media access – on the preferred United Russia candidate, and, it has been frequently alleged, fixing final vote tallies on election night to ensure that candidate's decisive victory.
But sharply rising food and energy prices, combined with what some experts describe as public frustration at being repeatedly manipulated, may have planted doubt in the minds of Kremlin strategists that the system will continue to work through the next crucial round of elections.
"There is a feeling that something needs to be done to make United Russia more attractive," says Valeria Kasamara, head of political studies at the independent National Research University in Moscow. "The party has become tedious to people, and it looks like a collection of rogues and thieves. Young people are especially turned off. United Russia has no clear ideas, no positive ideology that it stands for. It's just the party of a single strong leader."
Ms. Kasamara says the united civic front will likely come into existence if Putin wills it to, but it might not save United Russia from humiliation in December's Duma elections.
"Nobody wants this artificially forced unity, and what's the use of a political coalition that simply stands for all things good and against all things bad in general, without having any specific ideas to promote?" she says. "Russians are ready for something better."