ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin staged a televised meeting on Friday with a loyal support group called the People’s Front, suggesting he may promote it as an alternative power base to his scandal-plagued ruling party.
At an event that mixed echoes of Soviet Communist Party congresses with the atmospherics of a U.S. talk show, Putin said he planned to raise the Front’s status by making it a “public movement” and holding a formal founding congress in June.
He first set up the Front two years ago to broaden the appeal of his ruling United Russia party after regional elections showed its influence waning. Since then, United Russia’s reputation has taken further blows.
At Friday’s event, Putin made a series of populist pledges to loyalists assembled in the southern heartland city of Rostov-on-Don - ranging from curbs on severance pay for corporate bosses to better care for orphans, to higher standards for teaching Russian history in schools.
“We will meet regularly ... so that what we promised our citizens is not forgotten,” Putin said.
Sitting in the front row flanked by activists, he called for uniforms at state schools and for a post-Soviet version of the honorary title Hero of Socialist Labour. He made good on the latter promise by creating the title Hero of Labour of the Russian Federation in a decree signed shortly after the meeting.
Less than a year after his inauguration for a third term, Putin is maneuvering to firm up his political footing in the years before a parliamentary election in 2016. He could seek a fourth term in 2018.
Although his ruling United Russia party faces few serious challengers, it has lost much of its power to generate public enthusiasm since the days when it was first set up as Putin’s political vehicle.
The party’s reputation was harmed by allegations of fraud in a December 2011 parliamentary election, which led to the biggest opposition protests of Puin’s 13-year rule. Demonstrators branded it the “party of crooks and thieves”.
Putin responded with what opponents say is a clampdown on dissent, but has also distanced himself from United Russia, handing its top post to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
Disclosures that senior United Russia members held expensive properties abroad have proved embarrassing when Putin and the party are criticizing the West and pushing legislation to bar officials from holding foreign bank accounts or stocks.
The former head of the ethics committee in the State Duma lower chamber quit the parliament in February after documents posted on the Internet showed his name on deeds of property in Florida worth $2 million. Three other United Russia members have quit the Duma in recent weeks.
The troubles have prompted speculation Putin could dissolve the Duma and call a parliamentary election before 2016.
A Popular Front representative said the group did not intend to become a political party. However, under legislation Putin has submitted, half of the Duma’s 450 deputies would be elected in district races rather than from party lists, which means Putin loyalists could run without being part of a party.
Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Peter Graff