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Putin to address Russia's crisis-hit ruling party

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Moscow (AFP)

Russian leader Vladimir Putin is set Saturday to address a United Russia convention as the ruling party struggles to overcome a crisis amid the public's growing desire for change.

United Russia, which was established in 2001 and turns 18 next weekend, has been a legislative powerhouse, enjoying a constitutional majority in parliament's lower house since 2007.

In recent years its popularity has floundered amid mounting economic troubles and unpopular government decisions and its current rating hovers just above a record low of 32 percent.

Taking the brunt of criticism for recent reforms like an increase to the state pension age, the party is in need of a rescue plan by the Kremlin, analysts say.

United Russia has become so toxic that even ranking members chose to run as independents in local polls in September, earning a rebuke from party chairman Dmitry Medvedev.

Observers say the Kremlin underestimates the scale of the party's crisis and rule out any major reforms. Saturday's goal is to "raise the party's popularity and signal that Putin is still with it," said Konstantin Kalachev, head of the Political Expert Group think tank.

Putin distances himself from United Russia, and his spokesman Dmitry Peskov this week reiterated that although the president would address the convention, he is not its leader.

That role had been delegated to Putin's loyal lieutenant, Prime Minister Medvedev, whose popularity is also very low, and Putin's appearance on Saturday could somewhat boost the party's ratings.

The convention, which is to be held in a Soviet-era exhibition centre in Moscow, would review the results of this year's elections and address preparations for legislative polls in 2021.

- Putin's 'lightning rod' -

Unlike in many other countries, where the ruling party typically forms the government, United Russia does not make independent decisions and only rubber-stamps Kremlin and government initiatives.

"Its major task is to control parliament, but between elections, there is no need for the party, as its role in parliament is purely technical," said political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya.

It is basically a "department of the Kremlin administration," the head of the R.Politik analysis firm told AFP.

Kalachev said United Russia serves as a "lightning rod" for the criticism of the authorities' failures like rising poverty, corruption and ever-swelling bureaucracy.

In the eyes of the voters, "the party takes responsibility for all the sins of the authorities," he told AFP.

"It's the party's fault, not Putin's."

In the eyes of the opposition, United Russia is a "party of crooks and thieves," according to the famous phrase coined by top protest leader Alexei Navalny in 2011.

Not a single candidate including the head of the party's Moscow branch, Andrei Metelsky, ran on the United Russia ticket in the Moscow city parliament polls and even state-controlled pollsters indicate Russians' fatigue with its dominance.

Fifty-one percent of respondents said they believe the ruling party should "periodically change," the VTsIOM said on Thursday.

Stanovaya said that the Kremlin understands the party "needs to be rescued", stressing however that the authorities were "underestimating the situation."

But major party reforms are hardly possible as Russia's political establishment is being kept in the dark about Putin's plans beyond 2024, when his fourth Kremlin term ends, observers say.

"Nobody understands how the government structure will change, whether Putin will stay or go, and what United Russia's place will be in the system," Stanovaya said.

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