Leading businessmen, politicians and officials – at least one of them a key liberal – are rushing to align themselves with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin just as his All-Russian Popular Front and the United Russia party kick off primaries to determine some 600 candidates who will run for a deputy seat in the State Duma.
Igor Komarov, chief of Russia’s biggest automaker, Avtovaz, publicly endorsed the Prime Minister to run for president next March during a dinner Wednesday in Togliatti.
"If you evaluate who has helped us in our hardest time, the answer is obvious... Mr. Putin," Komarov was quoted by Reuters as saying after a Reuters reporter asked whom he favored as the next president.
"He played the principle role. It was his risk, his decision. He said we need to rescue Avtovaz."
Putin played a high-profile role in publically supporting the struggling car plant when the economic crisis hit the country in 2009 with a billion dollar bailout and a series of visits.
The news came after Wednesday’s announcement that Putin’s first deputy prime minister Igor Shuvalov was joining the All-Russian Popular Front – a movement created by Putin in May to revive his United Russia party and draw a wider support base.
Shuvalov, who oversees the government’s economic programs, is seen as a key liberal and was tipped in March to head the pro-business Pravoye Delo party.
But in June its chairmanship wound up going to billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who vowed to get the party Duma seats and said that it would break from its oppositionist past.
Shuvalov became the second high-ranking government official to join the Front after first deputy prime minister Viktor Zubkov signed up earlier this summer. Asked if other members of the Cabinet were expected to join the Front, Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov told The Moscow News that it could not be ruled out. He added it was too soon to tell which ministers these might be.
Earlier Vedomosti reported that four deputy prime ministers and two ministers were likely to head regional party lists for United Russia. These included Zubkov, Shuvalov, deputy prime ministers Igor Sechin, Dmitry Kozak, Alexander Zhukov and Vyacheslav Volodin, the business daily reported citing unnamed sources in the Kremlin and the government.
Reports appeared Thursday that a key founder of Just Russia, Alexander Babakov, was quitting the center-left oppositionist party to join the Front, according to a Perm-based newspaper, Sol.
This came after reports from one of the party’s leaders, Sergei Mironov, that at least three Just Russia members had broken with the party and joined the Front earlier in July.
Just Russia chairman Nikolai Levichev confirmed Babakov’s departure and said joining the Front would increase his chances of getting into the Duma. “No one at the party will regret his move,” Levichev was quoted by Gazeta.ru as saying.
Babakov’s move to join the Front was neither confirmed nor denied by Peskov or representatives of the People’s Front as of print time.
The reports came just a week after President Dmitry Medvedev purportedly hinted to a group of businessmen to make up their minds about which course the country should take. While the remark at the closed meeting was interpreted as a request to choose between him and Putin, experts cautioned into reading too much into it.
Neither Putin nor Medvedev have said whether they would run for president in the March 2012 elections, though both have suggested it is unlikely that they will both run. With Duma elections approaching, various enigmatic hints on the political scene are raising intrigue about who will be the next president.
But a leading expert said that many people were joining the Front to secure their careers rather than endorse Putin specifically.
“There is a wide sense of panic” in the elite about getting into the Duma, Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist and a coordinator of United Russia’s liberal wing said. “People are thinking, what if Just Russia doesn’t get into the Duma?”
As for Shuvalov, “when he refused to head Pravoye Delo it became clear that he wanted to remain in Putin’s team. His move to join the Front will determine his career.”