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Russia's Putin Clings to Power after Presidency Ends


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Pope Benedict is beginning his first full day in Washington D.C. today. We'll have more on that visit in a moment.


First to Russia, where President Vladimir Putin is clinching his hold on power after he steps down from office next month. His latest move: announcing, yesterday, that he'll become head of the country's largest political party.

NPR's Gregory Feifer reports from Moscow.

GREGORY FEIFER: Putin has promised not to change the constitution to enable him to stay in office after he leaves the presidency in about three weeks. But that doesn't mean he'll give up power. He's already said he'll become the prime minister after he steps down from the presidency. Now, he says he'll also be the head of the United Russia Party.

(Soundbite of music)

The Russian anthem was played at a United Russia conference where Putin made his announcement. It's the same music from the old Soviet anthem. Indeed, the proceedings looked very much like a Communist Party event. More than 600 delegates unanimously approved Putin's appointment to the new post of party chairman.


(Soundbite of applause)

President VLADIMIR PUTIN (Russia): (Foreign language spoken)

FEIFER: Putin accepted the offer, saying he was ready to take on the added responsibility of heading United Russia.

(Soundbite of applause)

United Russia holds a massive two-thirds majority in parliament, which will significantly boost Putin's authority after he leaves office. The party has the power to change the constitution, approve the prime minister, and start impeachment proceedings against the president.

At the party conference, an angry-looking Putin said the country's political forces still need to be consolidated.

President PUTIN: (Foreign language spoken)

FEIFER: Putin said the authorities need to exercise power like a unified organism. Putin's chosen successor Dmitri Medvedev takes the oath of office on May 7th, after winning an election opposition leaders say was rigged.

But Putin's party leadership raises the prospect Medvedev could rule only as a figurehead president. At the United Russia conference, Medvedev welcomed Putin's new role.

Mr. Dmitri Medvedev (Future Russian president): (Foreign language spoken)

FEIFER: Medvedev said the government should be formed by the majority in parliament. That could give Putin the right to appoint the cabinet, transforming the way Russia is governed from a presidential system to a parliamentary one.

Up to now, United Russia has functioned only as a tool of the Kremlin, but some believe the party could now become the real seat of power. That wouldn't be a new experience for Russia. After all, it's just the role once played by the Communist Party.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.