Source AP ©

President Putin visits Siberia ahead of parliamentary elections

President Vladimir Putin visited Siberia, the region, where voters gave him below-average support during the last presidential elections in Russia . This visit is of utmost importance for his political future and the results of forthcoming parliamentary elections.

There was no campaigning per se on Putin's schedule in Krasnoyarsk, where snow already covered the ground as the long winter set in. Putin was to chair a government meeting focusing on the transport sector nationwide, inspect a highway project and speak at a university.

But a likely aim of Putin's visit may be to bolster support for himself and the dominant United Russia party in Krasnoyarsk and the surrounding region, which reaches beyond the Arctic Circle and is home to more than 2 million voters.

Putin, who is barred by the constitution from seeking a third straight term next March but has said he plans to maintain influence after eight years as president, announced last month that he would lead the United Russia ticket in the Dec. 2 parliamentary elections.

An overwhelming victory for the party would give Putin a strong power base in parliament, providing him with political muscle after he steps down and, potentially, with a springboard to return to the Kremlin in 2012 elections or even sooner.

With United Russia leaders casting the vote as a referendum on Putin and his policies, a high turnout is also essential if Putin is to use the vote as a mandate to keep a hand on Russia 's reins.

In the 2004 presidential election, when Putin won a second term with more than 71 percent of the nationwide vote, he received about 60 percent in Krasnoyarsk , a lower percentage than in all but three of Russia 's nearly 90 regions. At 51 percent, turnout in the region was the lowest in Russia .

While he was careful to stress that Putin's visit was "not political," the regional head of United Russia, Vyacheslav Novikov, said it would probably give the party a boost in the upcoming vote.

As it does across the country, United Russia already held the high ground in Krasnoyarsk before Putin's visit or his decision to lead the ticket. The regional governor and the mayor of Krasnoyarsk are party members, and Novikov represents the region in Russia 's upper parliament house.

Across the sprawling city, United Russia billboards - reading "Putin's Plan is Russia's Victory" - far outnumber other parties' ads, and smaller United Russia signs are affixed to lamppost after lamppost along the main avenue downtown.

Opposition parties say the authorities use their power to unfairly benefit United Russia, echoing foreign observers' statements after the 2003 parliamentary elections that state control over levers of influence gave the ruling party an advantage, undermining democracy.

The regional head of the liberal Union of Right Forces party, Vladislav Korolyov, said that illegal pressure from the authorities is preventing his party from getting its message to voters.

Authorities pressure managers of potential campaign event venues to keep the party out, and police have barred the distribution of the party's campaign newspaper on trumped-up grounds, he said.

Opinion polls indicate United Russia will win a majority of votes in the upcoming elections and that only one other party, the Communists, is certain to clear the 7 percent barrier needed to win seats in the State Duma, the lower parliament house.