Putin’s Popular Front to replace United Russia?

Vladimir Putin (center) was elected as a leader of the Russian Popular Front on June 12. Source: Kommersant

Vladimir Putin (center) was elected as a leader of the Russian Popular Front on June 12. Source: Kommersant

Vladimir Putin welcomes wary supporters of United Russia to the Russian Popular Front.

The pro-Kremlin United Russia party has been taking blow after a blow to its reputation, as several of its high-ranking members have been accused of plagiarizing their postgraduate degree theses; others have been discovered to possess undeclared, high-end property abroad, the sources of money for which raise serious questions.

According to a survey by the national pollster Levada Center, the proportion of Russians adhering to to the famous opposition slogan, “United Russia is a party of crooks and thieves,” has risen from 31 percent to 52 percent in the past two years.

Many followers of United Russia run as independent candidates in local elections, rather than be nominated by the party. Take, for example, the acting mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin, who has been a United Russia member since 2002.

Between 12 and 16 percent of those who support Putin do not vote for United Russia.

It is precisely this group of voters – loyal to Putin but averse to United Russia – that is being targeted by the Russian Popular Front set up by Putin in May 2011.

Popular Front is a coalition of organizations, unions, social and political institutions, which includes, for all intents and purposes, United Russia.

“If you are for Putin, you are for the Front” – this succinct slogan on the People's Front billboard captures the very essence of the project.

“The administration is now aiming to put together a new platform for Putin to run, possibly, for his fourth term, and to create a banner providing him with a background against which he could campaign,” said political expert Boris Makarenko.

Over the two years since its inception, some 2,000 organizations have joined the Front, including one of Russia’s biggest employers, Russian Railways, the organization of small and medium-sized businesses, Opora Russia, and the association of big businesses, the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs.

In April 2013, the State Duma’s third biggest party, Just Russia, announced it was open to collaboration with the Popular Front.

Until recently, companies and organizations were free to join the Popular Front without securing the consent of all their employees.

However, the Popular Front Congress, which was held in the Manege Exhibition Hall on June 12 (the official Russia Day holiday), resolved that accession will now be considered on an individual basis only.

Despite its impressive membership, a poll conducted by the Levada Center in May revealed that 42 percent of Russians had never heard of the Front, while 39 percent more “had heard something, but did not really know what it meant.”

“In contemporary Russia, the more active people are politically, the more critical they tend to be of the current government,” political expert Mikhail Vinogradov said.

“So what the Popular Front sets out to be its voter base is actually a group of apolitical people who do not really care about the Front’s activities, but can set their feet down and say they are for stability and against change of power when it comes to it.”

The Front’s Charter clearly states that its aim is to promote “unity and mutual trust, collaboration and civil solidarity in the name of Russia's historical success, freedom, prosperity, welfare and security.”

According to its leader, Vladimir Putin, the Front is “meant to become a broad popular movement allowing all the people of Russia to set their own – the people’s – tasks, see them carried out and push forward the problems that stall in the swamp of red tape.”

In his address to the Popular Front Congress, Putin did not attempt to sum up the results of the organization’s two years of activities. In fact, no Front members have been noted for any large-scale projects.

“I am one of those who rallied in the regions against urban infill, prevented construction of tower blocks in schoolyards and in the yards of existing high-rise buildings,” Olga Timofeyeva, a TV journalist from the southern city of Stavropol and co-chairman of the Popular Front, said in an interview on the Dozhd channel.

“We have stopped many development projects and turned the sites into children’s playgrounds.”

The Popular Front is set to create public monitoring centers to keep track of human rights protection, the quality of healthcare, education and culture, family and child protection, problems in the utilities sector, environmental issues, development of business and entrepreneurship, development of voluntary projects, immigration matters and road surface quality.

“As a guest attending the Popular Front Congress, I can say it is an institution for political elite, and the political elite at the Congress definitely perceived it as such,” said Boris Makarenko.

In his address to the Congress, Putin called on his supporters to participate in elections. A quarter of deputies elected to the State Duma in December 2011 already represent the Front.

These include Olga Batalina, who proactively lobbied for a ban on adoption of Russian children by Americans.

The current parliament was elected by proportional representation, with votes cast for political parties only. A bill is now being drafted to elect half of the Duma deputies in single-member constituencies.

“United Russia members will be elected through the party-list vote, while other government pre-approved candidates will run on behalf of the Popular Front in single-member constituencies,” said Makarenko.

“It will be made clear to voters ahead of the election that the Front’s candidates are linked to the government and actually support Putin.”

It would be a mistake now to assume that the Front has come to replace United Russia in the short run, political expert Stanislav Belkovsky believes. “The Popular Front is not yet intended to become a party, because there can be only one ruling party,” Belkovsky said.

“Vladimir Putin is essentially a conservative-minded politician, and he will never move to destroy a system that works – even if it does so poorly – for the sake of what might be a good system but has yet to prove its efficacy.”

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