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Unified Russia Congress Promises Stability Despite Financial Crisis

President Medvedev (left) and Prime Minister Putin in the thick of things at the United Russia congress
President Medvedev (left) and Prime Minister Putin in the thick of things at the United Russia congress
Russia's ruling Unified Russia party has opened its 10th national congress, with nationally televised addresses by President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Both leaders laid particular emphasis on assuring the public that the government will continue to meet its social obligations in spite of the global financial crisis.

"The reserves that have been accumulated will ensure for the coming years the reliability of the Russian budgetary system, independently of the global price of oil or our other traditional exports," Putin told the party faithful. "And this means the salaries for state-sector workers, pensions, social assistance will be paid promptly. And the system of social guarantees will function normally. We will not resolve problems that come up or make up budgetary shortfalls at the expense of the citizens. We don't intend to do that."

Both Medvedev and Putin mentioned the potentially sweeping political reforms that Medvedev outlined in his November 5 address to the Federal Assembly and expressed complete support for them. Those reforms include extending the presidential term of office to six years and the terms of Duma deputies to five years, reforming the Federation Council, compelling the government to account for its work before the Duma, allowing political parties with majorities in regional legislatures to nominate governors, and other measures. These measures, if implemented, could significantly strengthen Unified Russia's position, since the party holds a constitutional majority in the Duma and majorities in regional legislatures across the country.

Although those proposals are in the early stages of implementation, Putin declared confidently that "we have already created the necessary political conditions" for carrying out the party's long-term plans.

The focus of Putin's keynote address was a package of concrete economic measures intended to bolster the economy and protect the public from the financial crisis. He expressed confidence that the government will be able to meet and expand its social obligations and continue working on the so-called national projects (ambitious development programs in the areas of education, health care, agriculture, and housing) while simultaneously coping with the global economic downturn. Putin warned of possible increases in unemployment, but emphasis on the responsibility of business and government to combat it and protect workers.

As usual at Unified Russia events, the emphasis was on unity and stability.

"We will do everything, everything we can to prevent the problems of years past, the collapses of years past, from being repeated in our country," Putin said. "We will do everything we can to protect the bank deposits of our citizens, to protect the legal interests of all those who invested their money in housing construction, so that there will not be the kind of economic shocks we saw in 1991 and 1998."

Analysts in Russia have said that Medvedev's political-reform proposals -- and the haste to implement them -- were prompted by fears among the ruling elite of growing public discontent as the financial crisis unfolds and its consequences (especially inflation and unemployment) trickle down. "As soon as the popularity of the authorities falls significantly, and is replaced by significant public protest, the matter of how the formal constitutional terms of the president's authority are expressed will lose their actuality," former Deputy Energy Minister Vladimir Milov wrote on on November 17. "Then completely different mechanisms of the interaction between the authorities and the public will come into action." Milov added that the "absence of working procedures for changing rulers" will make a tense, possibly violent, confrontation "unavoidable."

In his speech, Putin seemed to ignore the realities of Russia's political system and the "absence of working procedures for changing rulers." Referring to the undemocratic and heavily managed national elections of the last year -- the December 2007 Duma elections and the March 2008 election of Medvedev as president -- Putin asserted that "over the last year, Unified Russia has carried out several responsible election campaigns and has secured the succession and stability of political power in Russia."

The fact that the Kremlin is working at least as feverishly on sweeping political reforms as it is on coping with the financial crisis creates the impression that the ruling elite in Russia is grappling with two crises simultaneously.

At least one thing is clear: "As the party with a parliamentary majority," Putin said, "Unified Russia bears the full burden of responsibility for what is happening in the country."