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What's behind Putin's drive for a 'unified civil front' in Russia

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Putin spent much of the long weekend (Monday was Victory Day, a major holiday in Russia) meeting with business and social leaders to test the idea, which would include opening up as much as a third of United Russia's candidate lists to nonparty members affiliated with the new front. "United Russia needs an inflow of fresh ideas, fresh proposals, and fresh faces," he told journalists.

United Russia, the state-backed political behemoth whose membership is packed with officials, has given Putin near undisputed control over most legislatures in Russia for nearly a decade, including a two-thirds majority in the Duma. But lately its public approval rating has slumped dramatically. The party, which won 67 percent in 2007 Duma elections, was supported by just 43 percent of Russians, according to an April survey by the independent Public Opinion Fund (FOM).

"Putin [who leads United Russia] aims to secure his own position in case of a poor showing by the party in the coming Duma elections," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "The idea is to add some fresh faces, so that the candidate list doesn't just consist of the same old dull bureaucrats and corrupt officials. It's just an electoral scheme."

Putin's ambitions

But it also reflects Putin's personal ambitions, he adds. The former president has never seen himself as an ordinary politician, but rather as a "national leader" who sits astride society and speaks for all Russians.

"There is a kind of Czarist psychology at work here," says Mr. Petrov. "The Czar must be the leader of all, not just the representative of one political party or tendency."

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