MOSCOW -- Russian President Vladimir Putin was in a generous and agreeable mood when he attended a congress of the ruling but reeling United Russia party just weeks ahead of nationwide legislative elections.
After he and party leaders considered a range of proposals on ways the pro-Kremlin party could move forward, Putin gave his stamp of approval to some new programs and sweetened others with federal funds.
"A pension increase of 1,000 rubles ($13.50) is not enough," he told delegates at the August 22 event in Moscow. "I propose additionally paying pensioners this year a one-time payment of 10,000 rubles ($135)."
It would only be fair, Putin added, to also give all military personnel and cadets, as well as law-enforcement officers, a one-off payment of 15,000 rubles ($200).
"Everyone should be equal, like in the banya," the Russian president quipped, explaining that the bonus would be the same for all ranks.
The president then suggested that his proposed new outlays, amounting to about 500 billion rubles ($6.7 billion), should be sorted out by the next government to ensure the funds are disbursed this year, leading to claims from critics and political opponents that the president was essentially bribing the financially vulnerable with a "vote us in and we will pay you later" scheme.
"This is an attempt by President Putin to somehow save the sinking rating of United Russia, to correct its negative image, which has developed because of the State Duma's work in recent years following the raising of retirement ages," Aleksandr Gnezdilov, a high-ranking member of the liberal Yabloko party, told RFE/RL's Russian Service on August 23.
With 450 State Duma seats, as well as some mayors and regional heads, scheduled to be determined when voting takes place on September 17-19, the ruling party is in dire straits.
According to the state-funded pollster VTsIOM, support for United Russia as of August 15 stood at just over 27 percent -- the lowest since 2006. The state-funded Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), meanwhile, placed the party's support at 30 percent.
The drop is widely attributed to public anger over the party's backing for unpopular pension reforms in 2018 that raised retirement ages, as well as the party's role in the adoption of constitutional amendments last year that could, among other things, extend Putin's presidency until 2036.
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic and its contributions to economic stagnation have not helped either. And while Putin's approval rating has also suffered -- falling below 60 percent before recovering slightly and then settling at its current 64 percent, according to the independent polling agency Levada -- he remains the man to turn to when the party needs direction.
While not a member of United Russia, Putin still campaigns for the party that rubber-stamps his initiatives through its current 336 seats in the 450-seat lower house. Doling out payments to military personnel and 29 million pension recipients -- the two groups together representing more than 40 percent of the country's electorate -- could be a powerful show of support.
Other Potential Incentives
The payments weren't the only thing he dangled in front of Russian voters who might be eying changes in the makeup of their government, whether by voting for candidates running against United Russia or simply not voting at all.
Putin rattled off a raft of other potential incentives during the congress: the creation of five new cities as part of a major Siberian development program floated by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who was placed on United Russia's party list for the upcoming elections along with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in June; 45 billion rubles for emergency housing programs in the regions; 24 billion rubles to improve the ability to fight raging forest fires; and upgrades to Russia's aviation sector.
All of which, he said, should be supported by the party "in the 2022 budget and the planning period of 2023-24." He was apparently operating under the assumption that United Russia would still be in a ruling position at that time.
"I know that the ruling political force is always responsible for everything, for all the country's problems," said Putin, who in July signed a decree ordering support payments to families with children. "And this is always shifted onto your shoulders. But you have behaved responsibly so far, and the program has turned out to be executable."
Critics and a political opposition diminished by crackdowns on supporters of jailed rival Aleksei Navalny have cried foul, however.
'Sickening' And 'Outdated'
Many have questioned why -- if the Russian economy has "practically" recovered as both Putin and the Duma's Budget Committee head Andrei Makarov put it -- such incentives are needed now.
"If we consider these payments solely from an economic point of view, then they do not make any sense," the Russian political and business Telegram channel Kremlin Mamkoved wrote on August 24.
The Twitter account of Andrei Pivovarov, the jailed former executive director of the shuttered pro-democracy Open Russia movement, concluded that "United Russia has its own ideas about the election campaign: put competitors in jail and distribute money to the electorate."
Russian journalist Dmitry Kolezev cut to the quick, writing on his Telegram channel that it was clear that it was necessary "to appease the people on whom the regime relies" such as the military, police, and security agencies. "After all, what if they have to disperse any protest actions?" he asked sarcastically.
Andrei Zubov, a prominent historian and deputy chairman of the People's Freedom Party, said the whole thing was "sickening" and "outdated" and targeted people who grew up in the Soviet era and who were accustomed to being given something and then asked to give something in return.
"Unfortunately, the older generation is used to this, for them these handouts mean something," Zubov said, noting they deserve the money in the first place. "I think the younger generation is already different and does not need handouts as such. They want to build their own lives, earn money themselves, do business themselves.
Yabloko's Gnezdilov said even Putin's huge promises don't compensate for the money people lost when retirement ages were raised, the losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and the costs of propping up Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula -- which Russia annexed in 2014 -- and Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
"People will take the money," he told RFE/RL. "But I doubt very much whether they will change their opinion about United Russia and President Putin.