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Russian vote may help Putin craft his next role

The Dec. 2 vote is expected to bring his party a sweeping victory.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 27, 2007


President Vladimir Putin is constitutionally obliged to step down at the end of his second term next March.

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But as the lead candidate of the pro-Kremlin United Russia (UR) party running in this weekend's parliamentary elections, he seems intent on carving out a future role for himself.

What role that will be is still unclear, but he has broad public support for staying in power.

Already enjoying an 84 percent approval rating, Putin is further bolstered by a huge, new well-funded public organization, "For Putin."

The group, which critics say is financed by the Kremlin, claims to have already collected 30 million signatures – more than 20 percent of the population – calling on Putin to remain Russia's "national leader," regardless of election results or constitutional law.

"Our task is to establish control over political parties and institutions of power with only one intention: that Putin's course be continued," says Pavel Astakhov, co-chair of the "For Putin" movement. "People want Putin to stay as a guarantee of the continuation of his reforms, to ensure a stable life."

Speculation on Putin's endgame

Moscow is abuzz with theories about how Putin might stay on. Most revolve around the constitutional provision that limits a president to "two consecutive terms," suggesting that Putin might leave office and legally run again at some later date.

Citing sources close to the Kremlin, the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta last week suggested Putin might resign following this Sunday's parliamentary polls – if UR wins the expected massive victory. That would allow the prime minister he appointed in September, Viktor Zubkov, to step into the position of acting president. The letter of the law thus satisfied, Putin would be free to run for the presidency again in March, the paper said.

Other experts say Putin is more likely to build his new base of power in the lower house of parliament, the Duma, where he hopes to control a two-thirds majority – enough to amend the Constitution. "[As head of UR] Putin will enjoy more legitimacy than the future president will," says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a top expert on Russia's Kremlin elite.

Among other options, Putin might seek the job of prime minister and use UR's expected parliamentary majority to initiate constitutional changes that would shift powers from the president to the government, some experts have suggested.

"It's possible the Duma will become the real center of decisionmaking," says Ms. Kryshtanovskaya. "We may see a Chinese script develop in which Putin will be like Chairman Mao was," meaning a remote, authority-figure who is beyond challenge.

Putin takes a dig at opponents

Putin appeared last week before a crowd of cheering, foot-stamping "For Putin" supporters at a Moscow stadium.

In a speech reminiscent of Soviet rhetoric, he slammed internal and external opponents who "want to see us disunited.... Some want to take away and divide everything, and others to plunder," Putin said.

"Unfortunately there are still those people in our country who act like jackals at foreign embassies, who count on the support of foreign funds and governments but not the support of their own people," he said, in a probable reference to the pro-democracy Other Russia coalition, led by chess champion Garry Kasparov and radical leftist Eduard Limonov.