Russian President Vladimir Putin has joined a political organization for the first time since he ditched his Communist Party membership 22 years ago.
With hundreds of delegates applauding and chanting his name, Mr. Putin was acclaimed as leader of the newly registered All-Russia Popular Front, a social movement that aims to transcend formal political institutions and political parties. Though it's been in germination stage for more than two years, its official birth in the full glare of national television coverage this week heralds the arrival of a grassroots extra-parliamentary machine that will consolidate Putin's undeniable personal popularity. It will be a movement that answers to him alone, and will be able to exercise political clout at a street level in every community across Russia.
"The aim of the Popular Front is to provide every person with a chance to create, to build a great country, a great Russia. We’re ready to work with everybody, who shares those ideas and values," Putin told the movement's founding conference in Moscow Wednesday.
"Only like this, without confronting but uniting efforts in searching for the most appropriate development options, we can find the best way and reach the best result in our development. I am sure that we are heading in the right direction," he said.
Everyone who supports Putin will be welcome to join the Front, and it will also integrate major civil society groups like trade unions, veterans' organizations, youth movements, and others into its ranks.
"Putin needs to give some sort of structure to the 'conservative majority' that supports him. The idea is to bring in all kinds of people to be its public face, such as celebrities, working class people, all kinds that show it's an organization of the people and not of the authorities – although the authorities will control it," says Nikolai Petrov, a professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.
"This is a major development along the road to a corporative state in Russia," he says, referring to a system that is not based on political competition – Western-style democracy – but rather on social accord between different groups, mediated by a supreme leader.
"It's a broad coalition, but unlike political parties such as the ruling United Russia, it will be amorphous, a kind of organized public expression of Putin's will. It needn't ever become a political party itself, since it will be able to exercise power in a variety of ways, including proposing its own people to fill out the candidate lists of political parties," he says.
One reason Putin seems to be jumping to a new power base can be read in the inexorably declining poll numbers of his previous vehicle, United Russia, which, according a recent survey by the independent Levada Center in Moscow, is now connected in the minds of 51 percent of Russians with the phrase "party of rogues and thieves."
"Putin's approval rating is quite stable, around 64 percent in May, and we expect it to more-or-less remain so," says Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the Levada Center.
United Russia, on the other hand, which had an almost 60 percent approval rating four years ago, is now down to 35 percent, he says. And in the critical center of Moscow, which is not merely the country's political capital but also its economic, financial, and cultural control panel, the pro-Kremlin party's support is down to just 18 percent, Mr. Grazhdankin adds.
The situation in Moscow for the ruling party is so bad that the Putin-appointed mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, called snap elections early this month, and then stunned observers Wednesday with the previously unthinkable declaration that he will run as an "independent" and not a standard-bearer for United Russia.
"I think Putin has created the Popular Front out of fear that the picture we see in Moscow today might be common all over the country in some time," says Grazhdankin. "Judging by the public moods in Moscow, and all the other information coming in, United Russia has lost everything it could lose in Moscow. The handwriting is on the wall; a new political base must be urgently created."
In Moscow the disaffection with United Russia stems mainly from the new middle class – heavily concentrated in big cities – whose gripes against the authorities are largely over issues of civil liberties, such as the alleged mass electoral fraud engineered by United Russia in December 2011 Duma elections, as well as corruption and bureaucratic abuse.
But across Russia's far-flung, conservative and working-class heartland, where Putin's majority is still strong, there is another threat that likely has Kremlin planners anxious to shore up the Kremlin's power base while there's still time: Russia's economy is rapidly stalling, and, for the first time since Putin came to power almost 14 years ago, Russian growth lagged behind the world average in the first quarter of this year.
Experts say the Popular Front will serve not only as a future electoral machine for Putin, but also as a local whip in every Russian community where presidential power can be pitted against corrupt or inept officials, thus burnishing Putin's "good czar" image while shifting the blame and putting pressure on the bureaucrats.
"Putin's Popular Front is a reservoir, a strategic reserve whose full potential will not be used right now," says Vyacheslav Danilov, an expert with the Center for Political Analysis at the state-run news agency ITAR-Tass.
"It will serve as a source of fresh personnel to staff various institutions, including United Russia. It will also be a means for the president to communicate directly with different social groups. In other words, it will be a way to compensate for the deficiencies of the existing system," he says.
In a curious twist that will come as news to most Americans, the pro-government Moscow daily Izvestia claimed Wednesday that Putin's Popular Front has its "exact analogue" in the US in the form of Organizing for Action, a broad group created by members of Barack Obama's 2012 campaign team to support the president's electoral agenda between polling days. It's not uncommon for semi-official Russian media sources to assure the public that political developments taking place in Russia are no different from the way things are done in the US: Kremlin supporters routinely insist that the current campaign to intimidate and close down "political" nongovernmental groups that receive funding from abroad is modeled on the 1938 Foreign Agents Registration Act in the US.
But experts say it's more likely that Putin got his Popular Front plan from his years working as a KGB agent in East Germany, rather than from any US example. The former East Germany was nominally a pluralistic, multiparty state, but all activities were coordinated by an overarching National Front that channeled the authorities' will and created the appearance of public consensus behind it.
"It could be that Putin learned about this model in East Germany and is trying to adapt it to his current needs. It's a mechanism for establishing a higher order over what looks at first glance like a multiparty system," says Mr. Petrov.