By Gleb Bryanski
PSKOV, Russia (Reuters) - Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Monday invited motorists, home owners and charity volunteers to join a new movement which should help his United Russia party win a parliamentary election later this year.
Putin, Russia's most popular politician despite formally being second in command to his hand-picked successor President Dmitry Medvedev, met activists in the ancient city of Pskov in western Russia.
"I would like United Russia to come to life again," Putin told the activists who had applied for membership in his All-Russian People's Front, a movement meant to link his party to other forces from civil society.
Putin, who may seek re-election as president in 2012, wants the United Russia party to maintain a two-third majority in parliament. The party has been losing ground in recent months.
Critics have likened United Russia to the Soviet Communist Party and say the party, whose members are often implicated in corruption and criminal scandals, may become a drag on Putin's re-election bid.
Kremlin's chief ideologue Vladislav Surkov has advised Putin to reach out beyond the party's usual cohort of loyal bureaucrats and make contact with more "dynamic" people.
The first meetings of the new front's leadership, which were attended only by functionaries from United Russia or associated organizations and business lobbies, gave ground to analysts to say the new movement was stillborn.
United Russia responded by saying it was ready to give up to 150 places on it election party list to front members, effectively luring supporters with the prospect of parliament membership.
In a sign that the offer was promising, billionaire Alexander Lebedev, a former spy who owns a stake in the national carrier Aeroflot, said last week he wanted to join the front and use the parliament seat to fight corruption.
On Monday Putin appeared to heed Surkov's advice, reaching out to some of the groups formed around issues which concern Russian middle-class voters. Such movements, often created with help of the Internet, saw explosive growth in recent years.
Russian authorities, concerned with prospects of Middle East style protests, clamp down on opposition groups which question the country's political system but often show willingness to cooperate with activists pursuing more practical targets.
"They started from protests but have now switched to positive, constructive work," Putin said after the meeting, which focused on roads, housing and charity work - the issues which have mobilized middle-class Russians in recent years.
Activists from the "Dead Pskov Roads" group said they used Internet social networks to organize protests by automobile owners in Pskov over the dire state of local infrastructure and high petrol prices in 2008.
"One photograph was posted on the social network and 200 cars came out to protest. It was something new for our city but the authorities did not realize this," said the group's leader, Alexander Vasilyev.
"The new front line lies just outside our apartments and courtyards, our ideology is in line with one of the front," said Sergei Damberg, a leader of a home owners cooperatives' movement created in the course of a housing sector reform.
However, the most prominent faces of Internet protest movement in Russia such as anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny and environmentalist Yevgeniya Chirikova, have said they will not join Putin's front.
(Writing by Gleb Bryanski, Editing by Michel Rose)