Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday told United Russia to take initiative rather than wait for his lead as the ruling party struggles to overcome plummeting popularity after a long period of political dominance.
Putin addressed the annual convention of the party, which is widely seen as a rubber-stamp for the Kremlin and analysts say often takes the heat for any unpopular government decisions.
United Russia, which was established in 2001 and turns 18 next weekend, has been a legislative powerhouse, enjoying a constitutional majority in the parliament's lower house since 2007.
But the public's desire for change is growing, and the crisis has led to members trying to avoid the party's name in elections.
On Saturday Putin called on delegates to take the lead and be "with the people".
"I ask you to be leaders. Find and raise difficult questions without waiting for my annual phone-in," the president said, referring to the marathon television session he holds with Russians who complain about crumbling infrastructure or unresponsive local officials.
However he praised the party for "not shunning difficult decisions," likely referring to the recent reform hiking the state pension age, for which United Russia took the brunt of criticism.
- 'Party of crooks and thieves' -
Such unpopular reforms and mounting economic troubles have led the party's rating to collapse to a record low of 32.2 percent this year.
Putin usually distances himself from United Russia, and his spokesman this week reiterated that although the president would address the convention, he is not its leader.
That role has been delegated to Putin's loyal lieutenant, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
United Russia has become so toxic that even ranking members chose to run as independents in local polls in September, earning a rebuke on Saturday from party chairman Medvedev, who chastised them for "confusing voters".
Medvedev also urged the party to "renew" itself before the next elections and become "invincible for political opponents" by the 2021 parliamentary polls.
"We are preparing for a difficult campaign on all levels of the government," he said, complaining of "dirty" and "unfair" tactics used by opponents to attack United Russia.
For Russia's opposition, the party has been associated with corruption and extreme bureaucracy.
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny has made it his mission to destroy United Russia, calling it the "party of crooks and thieves" in 2011 -- a phrase that continues to stick at every election campaign.
- Putin's 'lightning rod' -
Unlike in many other countries, where the ruling party typically forms the government, United Russia does not make independent decisions and only rubber-stamps Kremlin and government initiatives.
"Its major task is to control parliament, but between elections, there is no need for the party, as its role in parliament is purely technical," said political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya.
It is basically a "department of the Kremlin administration," the head of the R.Politik analysis firm told AFP.
Konstantin Kalachev, who heads the Political Expert Group think tank, said the party also serves as a "lightning rod" for criticism of the authorities, deflecting heat from Putin himself.
In the eyes of the voters, "the party takes responsibility for all the sins of the authorities," he told AFP.
Not a single candidate including the head of the party's Moscow branch, Andrei Metelsky, ran on the United Russia ticket in the Moscow city parliament polls and even state-controlled pollsters indicate Russians' fatigue with its dominance.
Fifty-one percent of respondents said they believe the ruling party should "periodically change," state pollster VTsIOM said Thursday.
Stanovaya said that the Kremlin understands the party "needs to be rescued", stressing however that the authorities were "underestimating the situation".
But major party reforms are hardly possible as Russia's political establishment is being kept in the dark about Putin's plans beyond 2024, when his fourth Kremlin term ends, observers say.
Such questions were not expected to be answered at Saturday's convention.
"Nobody understands how the government structure will change, whether Putin will stay or go, and what United Russia's place will be in the system," Stanovaya said.