World Putin's party holds congress amid opposition clampdown
Biden likely to come out of Putin summit empty-handed and risks handing the Kremlin a victory, former US officials warn
"If there aren't clear deliverables criticism will grow that this high-level meeting ultimately benefited the Kremlin," a former US official said.Relations between the US and Russia have been deteriorating for years, and Washington has struggled to come up with an effective response to Putin's increasingly aggressive behavior both at home and abroad. Experts warn that Putin has no intention of using the meeting to improve relations, and question what Biden has to gain via the summit.
President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party will hold its congress Saturday ahead of September parliamentary elections that come amid a sweeping crackdown on the beleaguered opposition.
The gathering, which will determine the ruling party's candidates and electoral programme for the lower house of parliament vote, comes after authorities took drastic measures to stop Russia's main opposition politician Alexei Navalny affecting their outcome.
Barring his organisations from working in Russia, a Moscow court earlier this month branded them as "extremist", while Putin signed legislation outlawing staff, members and sponsors of "extremist" groups from running in parliamentary elections.
Biden, unlike predecessors, has maintained Putin skepticism
BRUSSELS (AP) — President Joe Biden frequently talks about what he sees as central in executing effective foreign policy: building personal relationships. But unlike his four most recent White House predecessors, who made an effort to build a measure of rapport with Vladimir Putin, Biden has made clear that the virtue of fusing a personal connection might have its limits when it comes to the Russian leader. The president, who is set to meet with Putin face-to-face on Wednesday in Geneva, has repeated an anecdote about his last meeting with Putin, 10 years ago when he was vice president and Putin was serving as prime minister.
Critics say the moves are aimed at ensuring that Navalny, who was jailed earlier this year for two-and-a-half years on old fraud charges he says are politically motivated, does not spoil the vote for the 68-year-old Kremlin chief and his deeply unpopular party.
In recent years, United Russia, which controls a majority of the lower house State Duma, has seen its support tumble amid economic stagnation, entrenched corruption and widespread voter fatigue.
On the eve of the party congress in Moscow, state-run pollster VTsIOM published a survey showing that 30 percent of voters support United Russia -- a 10-point drop from the last State Duma elections in 2016.
Putin talks hacking, Navalny and Capitol riot in NBC interview ahead of Biden summit
In an exclusive interview, Putin again denied that Russian hackers or the government itself were behind cyberattacks in the U.S. were "farcical," and he challenged NBC News, and by implication the U.S. government, to produce proof that Russians were involved."We have been accused of all kinds of things," Putin said. "Election interference, cyberattacks and so on and so forth. And not once, not once, not one time, did they bother to produce any kind of evidence or proof. Just unfounded accusations.
The party, however, is projecting calm ahead of the vote.
"It is a good base of support that can be further increased during the election campaign," party chairman and former president and prime minister Dmitry Medvedev said at the start of the month.
Putin, who will speak in person at the party congress on Saturday alongside Medvedev, himself boasts much higher support than his party with an approval rating of 61.5 percent, according to VTsIOM.
The pollster also predicts that three opposition parties that are seen as doing the Kremlin's bidding -- the nationalist LDPR, the Communists and A Just Russia -- will garner around 30 percent of the vote.
- Arrested candidates -
Even with Navalny and his allies sidelined, the authorities have not let up the pressure on the opposition.
Dmitry Gudkov, a former opposition lawmaker who had said he would run for the State Duma, this month fled to Ukraine after he said sources close to the Kremlin told him if he did not leave he would be arrested.
With US-Russia relations at low point, Biden, Putin each bring a wariness to Geneva summit
When Joe Biden meets Vladimir Putin in Geneva the West's favorite geopolitical bogeyman is not likely to get the easy pass he got from Donald TrumpThree years ago this July, former President Donald Trump stood side by side with the Russian autocrat at a press conference in Finland's capital and blithely dismissed assessments from his own intelligence agencies, defense officials and American lawmakers about Russia's alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.
Not everyone targeted has been able to flee, however.
Andrei Pivovarov, the former head of Open Russia, a recently disbanded pro-democracy group, was placed in pre-trial detention this month after being yanked off a Warsaw-bound plane minutes before takeoff at the end of May.
He had likewise said he would run in the parliamentary polls.
And this week police arrested municipal lawmakers Maxim Reznik in Russia's second city of Saint Petersburg and Ketevan Kharaidze in Moscow. Both had announced their intention to run.
Despite the ongoing clampdown, Navalny's allies are promoting his Smart Voting strategy that backs candidates best placed to defeat Kremlin-linked politicians -- a tactic that has seen United Russia lose a number of seats in recent local elections.
- Fraud fears -
But critics also claim that authorities will rig the vote in their favour in September.
On Friday, Russia's elections chief announced that the parliamentary polls would be staggered from September 17 to September 19 to limit the spread of coronavirus.
Last summer, after authorities held a constitutional referendum over one week, independent election monitor Golos said it had received hundreds of complaints of violations including multiple voting and intimidation.
The opposition said the multi-day nature of the referendum -- which paved the way for Putin to stay in power until 2036 -- gave election officials greater opportunities to fix the vote as the ballots were held overnight.
The congress comes as Russia grapples with a surge in coronavirus cases, with Moscow on Friday reporting the highest rate of new daily infections since the start of the pandemic.
As a precaution, United Russia party officials have restricted attendance down from 1,500 people to 500, who will have to present a negative Covid test and can even be vaccinated on location.
Biden is playing a long game with Putin. Will it work?: ANALYSIS .
After their summit this week, President Joe Biden said he is playing a long game with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Will it work?: ANALYSIS. After their afternoon summit in the Swiss capital, Biden said give him time to see if his approach works -- trying to play to Putin's long desire to have Moscow seen as a key power, respected and feared around the globe.