The implications of such a tour are myriad. This is all part of an effort by Putin to consolidate political control in the hinterlands, and when the tour is over no one will doubt who is in charge. It is important to note that the way the United Russia party is now being referred to -- simply as "The Party" -- is reminiscent of another Russian party that served as the single controlling power in Russia for most of the 20th century. Now there is a new version of The Party, and Putin is at its helm.
United Russia has been the ruling political party in Russia for the past five years, controlling two-thirds of parliament. Before 2003, the party polled well, and since its founding in 2001, it had become a major political organization. But United Russia did not dominate the political landscape until then-President Putin (who was the de facto if not formal leader of the party) began to consolidate his control over all of Russia politically, economically and socially.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1992, Russian heads of state had not headed the political parties that backed them because it would have been a reminder of the Soviet days, when just one party ruled the country. But Putin became head of the ruling United Russia party in April, after Dmitri Medvedev had been elected president and just three weeks before Putin handed him the presidential reins.
Now formally heading up United Russia, Putin has the freedom to publicly use the party as a tool -- among many in his kit -- to identify loyalists versus those who want to remain independent. Such a tool is very similar to one used during the Soviet era, when the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was made up of the top echelon of Russians (approximately 15 percent of the population and the most highly skilled or educated). To have any clout at all in the Soviet Union, one had to be a member of "The Party," as it was referred to.
Today, although United Russia claims only about 1.5 percent of the population, its membership is quickly growing, and its reincarnation of The Party is certainly something the Kremlin has been promoting.
According to United Russia officials, "Much has been done with the reformation of United Russia on the federal level, but in the regions they still do not grasp the new role of the party." This is a warning that Putin's consolidation and reorganization on the federal level under The Party will now trickle down to the regional level. When Putin first came to power as president, he consolidated some control over Russia's regions by purging a number of governors. Now that Putin has weeded out opposition to his power, it is time for him to make sure that each leader is formally beholden to him politically.
It is crucial for Russia's central ruling party to control the regions, since each regional head tends to lord it over whatever national champion or natural resource -- oil and natural gas, metals, or diamonds -- is found in that region. Most of these local party leaders are already handpicked by Putin and fall into one of two categories: his former security comrades or oligarchs. For example, Vladimir Kulakov, governor of Voronezh Region, is former KGB, and Dmitri Zelenin, governor of Tver Region, is one of the managers of aluminum giant Norilsk Nickel and heads up Ressource Bank and RATO Bank.
Putin has always had a firm hold on his former security comrades. When a financial crisis hit Russia, he proved that he was also in control of most of Russia's banks and major corporations and those who ran them. Most of these governors from the security and business worlds are already beholden to United Russia and Putin's vision of the country. Putin has to make sure that the stragglers are playing for his team, like St. Petersburg Gov. Valentina Matvienko, who remains outside of United Russia but reportedly swears allegiance to Putin.
The timing of Putin's regional tour is critical. Putin and the Kremlin are in their final stages of consolidating control over every aspect of political power and wealth in the country. Enforcing a new management structure from the top down is imperative to Putin's efforts to clean house and impose control, and there is no better way to do it than by bringing everyone under the command of The Party. As Putin weeds out the opposition, he is resurrecting old connections in very formal and public ways, making it clear to everyone exactly who holds the power in Russia...