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Pro-Putin parties form juggernaut in Russia
By Peter Graff

MOSCOW, Dec 1 (Reuters) - The two main pro-Kremlin parties united on Saturday, creating a centrist political juggernaut that already dominates Russia the way no party has since the Soviet Communists were ousted a decade ago.

President Vladimir Putin himself attended the first congress bringing the Fatherland group of powerful regional bosses behind the Kremlin's Unity political machine, which was custom-built to back Putin in parliamentary elections two years ago.

The new combined party will be called the Union of Unity and Fatherland, and, with its allies, already controls both houses of parliament and most regional leadership posts.

But the president, greeted with a standing ovation by top-flight bureaucrats packed into the Palace of Congresses at the Kremlin fortress, warned the delegates not to be complacent.

"To describe oneself as the party of power would be hasty, and, let's say it straight out, doesn't require much brains," he said in televised portions of a speech.

"But I should tell you: the power itself will not last long in its present form unless it is supported by social movements which reflect the interests of the majority of the country."

The move to unite the parties was months in coming. The two groups had been rivals at the ballot box, but both acknowledged that nothing separated them ideologically.

For the past year or so, they have dominated the State Duma, parliament's lower house, in a majority coalition with two other pro-Kremlin groups.

Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, Fatherland's founder, outlined the new party's centrist stand, saying the aim was to steer clear of ideological battles that paralysed the country for much of the 1990s.

"Our party presents a programme which sharply diverges from either the levelling tendencies of the Communists or the liberal recipes of shock therapy. And it boldly unites the market reforms Russia needs with resolute solving of social problems."

Luzhkov and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov set up Fatherland to contest the 1999 parliamentary election, but the Kremlin, worried the two men would be rivals to Putin, created Unity just weeks before the ballot to siphon off centrist votes.

Unity, led by Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu and a champion wrestler, placed second behind the Communists despite having no platform other than support for Putin.

Fatherland finished disappointingly in the election, but still claimed some of the most powerful governors as members.

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