#1 - JRL 7133
FEATURE-Russian leader sounds populist note as elections near
By Andrew Hurst
MOSCOW, April 7 (Reuters) - In many democracies it would cause uproar if a senior cabinet minister openly attacked his own government's economic policies.
In Russia, far from signalling disarray in government ranks, recent sniping among cabinet colleagues may be no more than a none too subtle ploy to revive flagging support for a pro-government political party as elections near.
Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov was drafted in last month to revive the fortunes of the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party and lead it into December's parliamentary election. Within weeks he had fired a salvo against free market reforms, using the platform of a party congress to attack government plans to raise energy prices.
"I think it's a game," said Yevgeny Gavrilenkov, chief economist with the Moscow investment house Troika Dialog. "They are trying to win electoral sympathies from the communists. They can't get votes by supporting the government."
Opinion pollsters VTsIOM show the United Russia Party -- the key party in a constellation of centrist groupings backing the government -- won only 21 percent of voter support in a recent survey, trailing the opposition Communist Party which had 31 percent.
With campaigning for the election to the State Duma, the lower house of the legislative assembly, fast approaching, populist broadsides may start to fly thick and fast, even from within the government's own ranks.
Unlike President Vladimir Putin, whose position is seen as unassailable as he prepares for presidential elections in a year's time, United Russia has never won massive voter endorsement and is lagging badly in the opinion polls.
"The interesting point is that there is not a fundamental split in the government," said Christopher Granville, a former diplomat who is a strategist with investment bank United Financial Group.
The party's criticism of government policy, he said, was "a reflection of the political weakness of United Russia."
RELYING ON THE KREMLIN'S PATRONAGE
United Russia, which together with other centrist parties votes consistently in support of government legislation in the Duma, is not a grassroots movement but relies on the patronage of the Kremlin for legitimacy.
"The party of power formula is a dud and always has been," Granville said.
United Russia and the Communists have the largest representation in the 450-seat Duma, with 82 seats each.
Gryzlov's answer to the party's problems appears to be to beat the populist drum unashamedly.
At its congress last weekend United Russia also said it would campaign to keep Russia out of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
Accession to the WTO is seen by reformers in Putin's administration as a key step to integrating Russia into the global trading system and helping complete the transition from Soviet state to capitalist economy.
"I don't think this criticism can have any real consequences," said Andrei Ryabov of the Carnegie think tank in Moscow. "I don't think Putin wants radically to change his team. He sees stability as a key achievement."
CHEAP GAS AN ISSUE
The European Union has said Russia should not be admitted to the WTO unless it raises the price of gas, which the EU alleges is being sold below cost to subsidise industry.
Gryzlov's tough line on the WTO has also been linked to Putin's strongly critical stance towards the United States-led invasion of Iraq. The Anglo-American offensive is deeply unpopular in Russia.
"Putin and the centrist parties have to position themselves to stop the communists and anti-reform parties profiting from anti-American sentiment," said Ed Parker, a sovereign risk analyst at ratings agency Fitch in London.
A senior government official said he was aware of Gryzlov's remarks, but insisted that the government was unswerving in its determination to join the WTO.
"It is the opinion of the government and of the president that Russia should continue accession negotiations and join as soon as possible on terms that are acceptable to Russia," said Maxim Medvedkov, deputy minister for Economic Development and Trade.
But if United Russia orchestrates a crescendo of populist rhetoric in the run-up to elections, some analysts believe it may carry risks for the future.
"The more they repeat these mantras the more they have to stand by what they say," said a London-based political analyst who asked not to be identified.
"It remains to be seen if it is a harbinger of a shift by the Kremlin towards reform," he added.