MOSCOW - President Vladimir Putin agreed on Tuesday to lead Russia's biggest political party, a move that will entrench his influence after he steps down as Kremlin leader next month.
"I accept the invitation of the party. I am ready to take on myself the additional responsibility and head the party," Putin told delegates at the ninth United Russia congress in Moscow, which was broadcast live by state television.
United Russia, which controls the State Duma (lower house of parliament), created the post of chairman this week especially for Putin, who helped found the party.
Putin has already said he will serve as prime minister once his protege, Dmitry Medvedev, is sworn in as president on May 7.
Medvedev told delegates earlier that it would be "premature" for him to join United Russia, arguing it was better for him at this point to remain a non-party figure.
The post of party chairman gives Putin additional clout in the Duma, where United Russia holds over half the seats. It may also offer a way to preserve his long-term influence by moulding the party into a powerful political force in its own right.
Sergei Markov, a political analyst and United Russia member of parliament, told reporters at the congress:
"It (the appointment as party chairman) strengthens Putin's political weight as national leader. Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev is leader of the state and of the Russian Federation, but the political leader of the country remains Putin."