Russian oligarch group backs Putin for party chief

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Heading Russia’s biggest political party would be a logical step for Vladimir Putin when he steps down as president, the head of Russia’s most powerful business lobby said on Tuesday.

Putin has agreed to be prime minister when he steps down after two consecutive four year terms as president and hands over to his chosen successor Dmitry Medvedev. But it has been unclear how he would secure his powerbase.

On Monday Boris Gryzlov, head of Russia’s biggest party United Russia, said Putin should become party leader and now Alexander Shokhin, head of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, has backed him.

“Leadership in United Russia rightfully belongs to Putin,” Shokhin said.

Shokhin has close ties to the Kremlin and his public statements often reflect thinking inside Putin’s entourage.

Putin has said he wants to maintain political influence after he quits as president, but has promised not to change the balance of power between the president and prime minister.

Speaking at a news conference after meeting with Medvedev, Shokhin said the leadership of United Russia should give Putin much needed political support.

“If this happens, the prime minister will have powerful political support from his party which holds a majority in the State Duma lower house,” he said.

“Of course the balance of powers between prime minister and president will then be built on a firm basis of a Duma majority rather than … through constitutional changes,” he added.

Putin and Medvedev are expected to attend a United Russia congress on Monday, but the Kremlin has so far refused comment.

Putin is popular because he took over a Russia wracked by political storms and economic crises, and has overseen years of uninterrupted economic growth.

His opponents accuse Putin of sacrificing democracy for economic success. Putin counters that Russian democracy should be built on a handful of big and stable political parties.

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