Russian President Vladimir Putin told a congress of the ruling United Russia on November 23 that the party has prospered by prioritizing "citizens' interests [and] the interests of our Motherland" and urged his allies not to fear "difficult decisions that don't yield situational popularity and extra points at elections."
The congress comes with national elections over a year away and United Russia reeling from unpopular pension reforms last year that drew huge protests, recent demonstrations challenging the disqualification of rivals from local elections in major cities, and notable election defeats despite administrative advantages and the dominance in Russia of Kremlin-friendly media.
"United Russia, as the country’s largest and leading political party -- and it has acquired this status because it has always prioritized the protection of citizens’ interests, the interests of our Motherland -- has never been afraid of responsibility at the most complex twists of history, has always assumed and shouldered this responsibility, and has not been afraid of difficult decisions that do not yield situational popularity and do not give extra points at elections," Putin told the 2,000 or so assembled delegates.
Putin kept his speech relatively brief and avoided any specific plans for the remaining five years of his fourth term as president.
None of Russia's elections under Putin has been deemed free or fair by Western observers.
Putin usually distances himself from United Russia, and his spokesman this week reiterated that although the president would address the convention, he is not its leader.
Critics say Putin has spent years tightening curbs on public opposition by jailing dissenters, eroding Russians' already limited ability to protest, and slapping civic groups with labels like "foreign agent."
Internationally Putin has demonstrated willingness to exert Russian might through military operations to prop up a regime in Syria, ongoing support for a separatist conflict in neighboring Ukraine, and seemingly bold efforts to undermine or influence elections from Europe to Madagascar.
In a nod to the amount of power he has consolidated within the Kremlin, Putin encouraged United Russia officials not to wait for him to fix problems through events like his carefully orchestrated call-in performances in which he doles out advice and executive orders on a wide range of problems.
“The worst thing to do for any party is to seek convenience [for itself], [and] become a safe and yielding playground for bosses at any level of power. I call on you, please, to make this party a leader in everything, look for burning issues and raise them yourselves without waiting for my annual Direct Line," Putin said in a reference to his televised Q&A marathon with Russian citizens. "Strive to fix these issues on your own and fight for justice.”
He acknowledged damage done to the party by public perceptions of rampant cronyism and corruption.
“United Russia is a ruling party. Yes, to an extent this is the way it really is. But this does not mean at all that the party fully identifies itself with every official in power or with each level of the executive branch," he said.
“Loudmouths and opportunists who have been clinging to the ruling party status can betray not just the party itself but our country as well," Putin added. "This has happened more than once in our history, including the most recent one.”
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told the conference that United Russia would set its priorities ahead of the 2021 elections with an eye to "retaining political leadership."
Party officials have suggested United Russia has a chance at winning at least 301 seats in the 450-member State Duma in elections slated for 2021.
Putin's current six-year term is scheduled to end in 2024, when the former KGB officer turns 72 years old.