President Vladimir Putin is constitutionally obliged to step down at the end of his second term next March.
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.
Over the weekend, Mr. Kasparov, Mr. Limonov, and the probably presidential candidate of the liberal Union of Right Forces (SPS), Boris Nemtsov, were picked up by police as they took part in street demonstrations in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Kasparov, sentenced to five days in prison for leading an "unauthorized rally," was thrown to the ground and beaten with truncheons during his arrest Saturday, according to his assistant, Marina Litvinovich.
UR's support jumps to 67 percent
Though 11 parties are running for the 450-seat state Duma, Putin's UR has taken a commanding lead, jumping from around 40 percent support before Putin joined its ticket in early October to 67 percent in a mid-November survey conducted by the independent Levada Center in Moscow.
Other polls put UR's support lower, but none less than 55 percent. The only other group that looks likely to hurdle the 7 percent barrier needed for entry to the Duma is Russia's still-powerful Communist Party, which got 14 percent in the Levada poll.
"This election campaign is taking place under extraordinary conditions; there is nothing democratic about it at all," says Nikita Belikh, head of SPS, who was detained along with Mr. Nemtsov at a St. Petersburg rally of the Other Russia Party on Sunday.
The SPS, which includes many former Yeltsin-era Kremlin officials, were strong supporters of Putin when he came to power eight years ago but, by last week, had joined Other Russia in the streets.
In mid-November the party launched a Supreme Court challenge against Putin's participation in the Duma campaign, arguing that it broke Russian electoral law and created an "unfair advantage" for UR.
"Putin is using his official position [to boost UR] in the campaign," says Mr. Belikh. As president, Putin has enjoyed many hours of dedicated TV time, in which he has "dialogued" with Russian voters and chatted with UR activists, always boosting the "Putin Plan" for Russia – which happens to be UR's main slogan.
According to a survey by the independent Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, the president, the government, and UR were the focus of 97 percent of political news coverage on Russia's four main TV channels during the month of October.
"None of this [favorable coverage] is paid for by UR, but it's clearly election agitation under the law," says Belikh. Last week the Supreme Court rejected SPS's challenge.
Why he's so popular
But Putin's supporters say it's obvious that the man who has presided over Russia's breathtaking economic, social, and geopolitical recovery over the past eight years should remain at the nation's helm.
"Putin has been involved in strengthening the country, consolidating the people, and defending our national values," says Mr. Astakhov. He says there's nothing undemocratic about Russians supporting the return of their chosen leader.
"Putin came to our forum [last Wednesday] and he was very democratic .... He was among the people; he was greeted, embraced, kissed, shaken by the hand. It was very democratic."