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Putin launches Kremlin bid with swipe at opponents

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Vladimir Putin accepted his ruling party’s nomination on Sunday to return to Russia’s presidency, while accusing foreigners of funding his political opponents in a reminder of the anti-Western rhetoric that characterized his years in power.

Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin addresses the audience during a United Russia party congress in Moscow November 27, 2011. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Putin, president from 2000-2008 and now prime minister, is expected to easily recapture the presidency in an election in March. But opinion polls indicate a parliamentary vote in a week could loosen his United Russia party’s domination of politics.

The timing of his Putin’s nomination for the presidency - two months after he first said he would run - appeared aimed at giving United Russia a boost in the December 4 parliamentary vote at a time when the ruling party’s support has flagged.

“Of course, I accept the proposal with gratitude,” Putin said, confidently accepting the nomination before a crowd of 10,000 supporters chanting his name in a Moscow sports arena. The congress was broadcast live on television.

Putin said that ahead of both votes “representatives of some foreign countries are gathering those they are paying money to, so-called grant recipients, to instruct them and assign work in order to influence the election campaign themselves.”

He said any such activity was a “wasted effort” because Russians would reject foreign-funded politicians, comparing them to Judas, the traitor of Jesus in the bible.

Foreign governments “would do better to pay off their debts with this money and stop pursuing inefficient and costly economic policies,” he said in a dig at economic troubles in Europe and the United States.

Putin, 59, was constitutionally obliged to leave the presidency after serving two consecutive four-year terms, but has remained Russia’s most powerful man as prime minister. The constitution now permits him to serve two more consecutive terms of six years, which could see him stay president until 2024.

During his presidency, Putin often suggested Western countries were funding his opponents. Competing political forces have been effectively sidelined in the 11 years since he first came to power.

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In a carefully choreographed performance, Putin traded praise with his hand-picked presidential successor, Dmitry Medvedev, who is expected to take over the prime minister’s post after stepping aside for Putin to return to the presidency.

Support for United Russia would boost Putin’s performance in next year’s presidential election, Medvedev said.

“The more convincing our result is on December 4, the more certain and more solid our victory will be at (presidential) elections in March of next year,” Medvedev told an audience packed with famous public figures and throngs of young people.

Putin is Russia’s most popular politician, credited by the public for ending the steep economic decline of the post-Soviet period. But his approval rating has slipped in the past year, standing at 67 percent in the most recent survey by independent pollster Levada-Center, down from near 80 percent in 2010.

Laying out the case for his return to the presidency, Putin attacked rival political forces, blaming the Communists for the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and saying those in power in the 1990s had “brought the country to the edge of the abyss.”

Since then, he said, the government had managed to “return the country its strength, self-assurance and respect in the world. All this was done with the participation and direct support of United Russia.”

“This gives me the right to say that we know better than anyone else what to do and how to do it,” he said to applause.

The plan for Putin to return to the presidency was laid out at a similarly grandiose meeting on September 24. It was met with mixed reactions among Russians, with many in the middle class voicing fears of stagnation, and anger that the political future seemed to have been decided behind closed doors.

Dissatisfaction with the political landscape and United Russia’s dominance was illustrated when Anatoly Chubais, an architect of the country’s market reforms in the 1990s, announced he would not be voting in the upcoming elections.

“For the first time in 20 years it seems that I am among those who have no one to vote for. Therefore for the first time I am not going to vote,” Chubais, who now heads Russia’s state-run nanotechnology company, wrote in his blog on Saturday.

Putin’s nomination came after a series of admiring speeches from speakers ranging from politicians and military officers to cultural figures. A southern farmer raising 19 children stuttered with nerves as she recommended Putin’s nomination.

“Russia needs a leader -- one who is brave, strong, smart and capable not only of protecting the rights and freedoms of citizens but of reminding everyone of their responsibilities,” said Stanislav Govorukhin, a politically conservative filmmaker.

Reporting Gleb Bryanski; Writing by Thomas Grove; Editing by Steve Gutterman and Peter Graff