At a pompous event at Moscow's Luzhniki Arena on Sunday, the pro-Kremlin United Russia party officially named its leader Vladimir Putin, Russia's powerful prime minister, as its candidate for the March 2012 presidential elections.
All 614 delegates from United Russia and Putin’s All-Russia People’s Front movement who took part in the vote during a party congress at Luzhniki unanimously backed Putin’s candidacy.
Some 11,000 Putin supporters gathered at the congress, held a week before December 4 parliamentary elections, to witness the official start of what is likely to become their leader's triumphant return to the Kremlin after four years as prime minister.
A storm of standing ovation welcomed the announcement of the vote result as Putin made his way to the dais to thank his supporters.
“My all life, without exaggeration, was devoted to serving our Fatherland,” he said in his speech, broadcast live by Russian state television channels.
“Our motto is ‘Never look back!’ Thank you… We will win together,” he added as President Dmitry Medvedev joined him on stage.
Tricolor national flags and dark-blue banners with a picture of a white bear, United Russia’s symbol, waved over Luzhniki Arena’s crowded grandstands as the prime minister’s supporters chanted “Putin” and “Russia” in an outburst of patriotic sentiment.
Putin and Medvedev unveiled their plans to swap jobs after the March 2012 elections during United Russia congress in late September. The announcement ended months of speculation about Putin's possible return to the presidency.
The presidential election campaign officially kicked off in Russia on Saturday. The vote is scheduled for March 4.
‘People believe Putin’
Medvedev, who leads United Russia's ticket in the upcoming parliamentary polls, was the first to address the Sunday congress participants, ahead of the vote on Putin’s nomination.
“I have the honor to lead the most powerful political force in this uneasy and very responsible period for our country,” he said, adding that he was “absolutely sure” that United Russia’s victory in the December 4 elections was “not only useful, but also necessary for our country.”
“We are now finally and absolutely officially establishing our political strategy not for a short period, but for a long term,” he said.
As for Putin, he is “in fact the most popular, the most experienced and successful politician of modern Russia,” Medvedev said.
Chants “People believe Putin” interrupted his speech.
“That’s what support is,” Medvedev commented.
A survey conducted by state-run VTSiOM pollster on November 19-20 shows 43 percent of Russians trust Putin, while trust in Medvedev stands at only 31 percent.
In one of his strongest remarks about the country’s opposition to date, Medvedev said “our opponents have been saying empty words and bulldozing the ruling party for the past years,” while “failing” to succeed in their own jobs.
His speech was repeatedly interrupted by chanting "People, Medvedev, Putin." At one point, apparently annoyed by a long-lasting expression of the ruling tandem fans' feelings, he said “Thank you” and made a gesture that could be interpreted as a request for supporters to calm down.
“Everyone is fed up with corruption… everyone wants justice,” he went on. “I am sure we have a chance to change this situation… We will not disappoint you.”
Greeted with thunderous applause, Putin then took the floor.
“Does United Russia always correspond to people’s aspirations? Of course not,” he told the congress, “but still, it was United Russia’s support that helped us move forward in the most critical period in out country’s history.”
“This gives me the right to say that we better than anyone else know what and how we should do on the new stage of out state’s development,” he added.
Unlike Medvedev, Putin’s Sunday address was never interrupted. Chants “Russia” only broke out when he made a pause in his speech. At one point, he himself orchestrated the chanting by banging the podium with his fist.
“Why do people support this staged democracy?” a Western reporter, one of more than 1,100 journalists accredited to the event, said loudly.
Putin outlines plans for future
Dressed in a black suit and dark wine-red tie, Putin looked pleased with the support he enjoyed. He spoke much more confidently before his party members and loyalists than a few days ago, when he delivered a speech at another Moscow sports arena and was publicly booed, for the first time in his political career.
In what could be seen as an outline of his presidential program, Putin pledged to continue improving Russia’s social and economic standards, modernize its army and maintain “stability and peace in the huge Eurasian territories.”
He also urged those whose “populist and provocative ideas... lead to national betrayal and eventually the country’s collapse” to scale back their ambitions.
Russia will continue implementing an “active” foreign policy, he said. Dialogue with Moscow “is only possible on equal terms.” It is “possible” to agree with Russia, but “nothing should be bestowed upon it by outsiders.”
Attempts to influence Russia’s political process from abroad are “useless,” Putin said.
In an apparent reference to the United States, he said: “Let them better use their money to pay their foreign debt and stop implementing ineffective and expensive foreign policy.”
The two announced candidates to challenge Putin in the March 2012 elections are Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the right-wing LDPR party. Both are yet to be officially nominated.
The rest of Russia’s seven registered political parties are still undecided on their participation in the vote. An individual candidate unsupported by any party has to gather 2 million signatures in his or her support, according to the Russian law.
Weaker results expected
A poll of 1,600 people conducted by Russia's Levada Center on November 18-21 shows some 53 percent of Russians will support United Russia in next Sunday's vote, a 11-percent drop since 2007 elections.
Other surveys show United Russia's expected elections results ranging between 41 percent (state-run VTSiOM) and 57 percent (St. Petersburg Policy Foundation). Experts say the drop in the party's popular support is likely to cost United Russia more than 50 seats in the 450-strong parliament, which it currently dominates with 315 mandates. As a result, the party may lose its constitutional majority in the State Duma.
“The result of Statе Duma elections is principally important for us,” said Boris Gryzlov, the speaker of the Russian parliament’s lower house and senior United Russia official.
In his opening speech at Sunday’s congress, he said: “We are confident in our electorate’s support and in our victory. We must win.”