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Financial Times (UK)
March 31, 2003
Putin party's manifesto proves short on hard policies
By Andrew Jack in Moscow

The parliamentary movement behind Russia's President Vladimir Putin unveiled its manifesto this weekend and in effect kicked off the campaign for elections to the Duma at the end of the year.

United Russia unveiled a document that gave unquestioning support to the president but offered few concrete policies at its congress in Moscow on Saturday.

Boris Gryzlov, the group's new leader and confidant of Mr Putin who was brought in to revitalise party organisation, took the opportunity to criticise the government and cabinet.

The move was seen as an attempt to capitalise on the high personal ratings of the president, which contrast with growing concerns about the policies implemented by his cabinet.

He attacked the lobbying influence of big business and resistance to plans for steep energy increases and freer trade.

Mr Gryzlov hinted at a greater role for United Russia in forming future cabinets, in a shift from a presidential to a parliamentary republic that might allow Mr Putin the chance of a continued political role after the end of his second term in 2008.

Unity, the original entity within United Russia, was created only months before the 1999 elections, but on the basis of its loyalty to Mr Putin it was able to win the second highest number of votes after the Communist party.

It has since engineered a merger with other parties in parliament - including Fatherland, its former principal rival headed by Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow and one-time presidential contender - to make it the largest faction.

The party's new manifesto contains little detail of policy, stressing its desire to appeal to all groups in society with an approach based on "political centrism" and to be "the party of the presidential majority".

As during the 1999 parliamentary race, Mr Putin has been coy about officially endorsing United Russia, but he has made his indirect support clear, sending a message to militants this weekend and meeting with its leadership late last week.

"I see all the signs of a crisis by summer," said Sergei Markov, a political analyst. "This congress was not an answer but an attempt to avoid an answer. I think the presidential administration will push to take direct control of the party."

Regional politicians including Akhmed Kadyrov, head of the pro-Russian Chechen administration, attended the meeting, which in many ways resembled a gathering of the Soviet-era Communist party.

Against a backdrop of patriotic music, participants were handed free computer mouse pads bearing the party's logo of a bear and a map of Russia against the backdrop of the national flag.

But there was little debate during the formal sessions, and the key resolutions were swiftly put to the vote and approved unanimously.

Recent polls suggest that the Communists may still beat United Russia, with about a quarter of the vote, in December, while the liberal Yabloko or SPS groups and the extreme nationalist LDPR may also gain seats in the new parliament.

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