Russia's Putin leaves pro-Kremlin suitor in cold

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MOSCOW, Oct 30 (Reuters) Support from President Vladimir Putin counts for a lot in Russian politics, especially if you are a party whose main selling point is its loyalty to the Kremlin boss.

When Putin announced he would lead the pro-Kremlin United Russia party into a December. 2 parliamentary election, that party's opinion poll ratings shot up. The rival pro-Kremlin suitor for Putin's support, Fair Russia, was left forlorn.

Since Putin's announcement, Fair Russia's opinion poll rating has nosedived and some of the party's best-known figures have quit. One of the party's lawmakers in a regional parliament proposed closing down Fair Russia altogether.

Alexei Timofeyev, who sits in the St Petersburg city legislature, said when he joined the party he was assured that Putin would take over as leader of Fair Russia when the time was right.

''Either that was not true, or the situation in the Kremlin has changed,'' Timofeyev told Reuters yesterday.

''If you proceed from good sense, if we were created to support the president, then now that he does not need our support we should either go into opposition or we should close ourselves down to support the president.'' Last August when it was created, strategists in Putin's administration said Fair Russia -- along with United Russia -- would be the twin pillars of a new model of democracy whose chief feature was loyalty to the Kremlin.

It had the stamp of Kremlin approval: Putin welcomed its creation, and it was given the green light to use the president's picture in its campaign posters.

In opinion surveys by the independent Levada Centre, Fair Russia's support among Russian voters peaked in March at 11 percent. That drifted to seven percent in September.

By late this month, soon after Putin joined the United Russia election ticket, it had fallen to four per cent -- below the seven per cent threshold needed to qualify for seats in parliament. United Russia had 68 per cent.

DEFECTIONS First to jump ship was Valentin Varennikov, a federal lawmaker who returned to the Communist Party, from which he had earlier defected. Sergei Shargunov, No. 3 on Fair Russia's party list, left amid rows with party managers.

Then federal lawmaker Yevgeny Roizman walked out of the party and took with him 10,000 party members in the Sverdlovsk region, an industrial heartland in the Ural mountains.

''They treated us like cattle. We cannot be here any more and we are leaving Fair Russia,'' Roizman told Reuters.

Unable to sell itself on its loyalty to Putin, the party will now have to take on United Russia on the same terms as other parties.

That means competing against Putin's enormous popularity and the resources of the state, which many politicians say will be thrown behind the United Russia campaign.

The Kremlin says it will not interfere, but some observers predict local officials will be ordered to make sure United Russia wins not less than 70 per cent of the vote because anything less would be personally embarrassing for Putin.

''If there is a situation where governors get an instruction to ensure that United Russia has a certain percentage, for example so that it corresponds to Putin's popularity rating, then we are going to be in a tough position,'' said Fair Russia spokesman Alexander Morozov.

REUTERS SG RK1637

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