Putin Hopes Ruling Party Will Dominate Parliament After Vote

MOSCOW (AP) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed hope Sunday that the Kremlin's United Russia party will continue its dominance in parliament after the country's parliamentary election in September.

The Sept. 19 vote is widely seen as an important part of Putin's efforts to cement his rule before the next presidential election in 2024. The 68-year-old Russian leader, who has been in power for more than two decades, pushed through a constitutional reform last year that would potentially allow him to hold onto power until 2036.

As the election approaches, Russian opposition supporters, independent media and human rights activists face increased government pressure, ascribed by many to the Kremlin's desire to ensure that United Russia retains its dominating positions in the parliament.

Putin met with top United Russia officials on Sunday and said that he "very much counts" on the party to "retain its positions" after the election and "will be able to make the necessary decisions in the interests of the country at the legislative level."

The United Russia faction currently holds 334 parliament seats out of 450. However, polls by Russia's top independent pollster Levada Center show only 27% of Russians are prepared to vote for the party this year.

During the meeting, Putin also announced one-time payments of about $135 and $200 to Russia's retirees and servicemen.

Leonid Volkov, top ally of the imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, denounced the move as an "open bribery of voters."

Navalny's team has come under an intense crackdown in recent months. As the corruption fighter himself is serving a 2 1/2-year sentence in prison, his Foundation for Fighting Corruption and a network of regional offices have been outlawed as extremist organizations. The designation has barred people associated with the groups from seeking public office and exposed them to lengthy prison terms.

Some of Navalny's top associates had planned to run in the parliamentary election. The politician's team has also promised to deploy its Smart Voting strategy at the election -- a project designed to promote candidates who are most likely to defeat those from the dominant United Russia party.

The government has also declared a number of independent media outlets and journalists "foreign agents" -- a label that implies additional government scrutiny and carries strong pejorative connotations that could discredit the recipients -- and raided the homes of several prominent reporters.

Several media outlets and human rights group have ceased operations after being accused of ties with "undesirable" organizations -- a designation that outlaws a group and exposes its members, supporters and partners to prosecution.