Byline: Owen Matthews And Anna Nemtsova
Vladimir Putin says he may lead United Russia when he leaves office. That will solidify his control, and turn the party into a new center of political might.
Meeting Vladimir Putin was the most exciting moment of Elena Lapshina's life. The 35-year-old textile-factory worker from Rodniki, north of Moscow, was one of three rank-and-file United Russia party members selected to share the platform with Putin as a guest of honor at the party's annual congress earlier this month. "When I saw [Putin], I forgot my own name, every muscle in my body was shaking," recalls Lapshina. "He is more than a father. He is my leader, he is my idol." In front of 2,000 party faithful, Lapshina made an emotional appeal to Putin. "Heed the wishes of millions of Russians," she pleaded. "Continue to lead us to the wonderful future!" Wearing his characteristic shy smile, Putin's reply sent the hall into a storm of applause: after stepping down as president next March, he would consider leading United Russia and continuing in power as Russia's prime minister.
At a stroke, Putin's move made United Russia something far more than just a political party. As the chosen institution by which Putin and his allies plan to cement their hold on power, it's more like The Party of old -- something between an organ of the state and a private club for Russia's rulers. "Putin will de facto stay on for a third term in power," boasts Vyacheslav Volodin, secretary of United Russia's presidium. "And since he will be our leader, we will be the real center of power."
For sure, there are some differences between United Russia and the old Communist Party of the U.S.S.R. The old Party, for one, was 20 million strong, had cells in every workplace and controlled appointments to every senior job, from prima ballerina to paint-factory foreman. United Russia, with its 1.6 million members, has nowhere near that reach. The old Party was also intensely doctrinaire, monitoring and instructing citizens in all aspects of their lives, including literature and personal hygiene. United Russia's basic political doctrine doesn't go far beyond the "Putin Plan" -- defined by Kremlin-connected political scientist (and, as of two weeks ago, United Russia member) Sergei Markov as "making the country strong, rich and independent."
But these are early days. United Russia plans to remake itself in the image of the old Party, complete with an ideology, a youth wing and, ultimately, a monopoly on power and patronage "Our absolute first priority is to save Russian civilization," says Andrey Vorobyev, head of United Russia's Central Committee. "Not to allow Western influence to corrupt our language, not to allow fashionable theories or other interferences from outside to damage Russian sovereignty." More concretely, Dmitry Orlov from the Kremlin-connected Center of Political Technologies gave deputies at the party congress a list of milestones to achieve in Russia's ascent to greatness. Among them: "a manned mission to the moon by 2012; hosting the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014; attaining the world's fifth largest GDP by 2020; flying to Mars by 2025."
Already, anyone with political ambition is in the United Russia party. More than 60 regional governors (out of 89) are on the party's lists, as are almost all Russia's mayors. And even though three of the four major parties in the Duma support Putin, politicians …