More than 700 delegates from across the country turned up for a well-orchestrated pep rally in the city of Tver on November 15 to pledge allegiance to President Vladimir Putin and implore him to remain in power after his term ends next year.
Since Putin is constitutionally forbidden from seeking a third consecutive term as president, the event's organizers are proposing to grant him a sort of elevated mythological status as Russia's supreme ruler who would lord over any future president or prime minister -- unburdened by troublesome term limits and pesky constitutional restrictions.
The meeting, held in a local theater adorned with Russian tricolor flags and banners reading "For Putin!," followed a wave of demonstrations in support of the president in numerous Russian regions. It resulted in forming an organization called the "All-Russian Council of Initiative Groups to Support Putin."
"We are gathering not for a third term," Pavel Astakhov, a prominent attorney who was elected the organization's leader, told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "We respect the president's word and we believe him when he says he will not change the constitution. And since he will not change the constitution, we need to find a new configuration of authority."
Astrakhov later told reporters that his group has gathered 30 million signatures in support of Putin remaining in power as Russia's "national leader."
He insists that that the recent groundswell of pro-Putin demonstrations is a genuine grassroots movement and is not being orchestrated by the Kremlin. Press reports and critics of the Kremlin, however, have alleged that students and state employees have been pressured to attend the rallies.
All Putin All The Time
Keeping Putin in power one way or another has become a fixation that has eclipsed all other issues for Russia's political class.
Elections to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, are just two weeks away and there has been little meaningful discussion of parties, platforms, programs, or coalitions. Likewise, presidential elections are four months down the road and there are no serious candidates on the horizon.
Instead, it's all Putin all the time. The Russian president is heading the candidate list of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party for the December 2 elections. Their platform is plastered on billboards across the country: "Putin's Plan is Russia's Victory." The contents of Putin's fabled plan, however, remain a mystery.
The result of Putin's omnipresence, analysts say, has been an emasculation of the country's political institutions as the Kremlin rallies the masses to support and exalt their leader and keep him in charge no matter what.
"The public agitation about Putin and what should be done to keep him at the helm of Russia after 2008 has essentially eclipsed the Duma election campaign," political analyst Vladimir Frolov wrote in the journal "Russia Profile" recently. The pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, he adds, "has turned the election into a referendum on the personality of the president, without any discussion of the policies pursued during his rule."
Analysts and critics warn that Russia is moving quickly toward establishing a personality cult around Putin. Russians, of course, are no strangers to such leader cults, which were constructed around Josef Stalin and, earlier, around Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin.
Speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service, Lev Gudkov, the head of the Moscow-based Levada Center said that as "hope in the great national leader" grows in Russia, so too does "authoritarianism" and the risk of one party rule. "This is a very dangerous tendency," Gudkov said.
Likewise, Stanislav Belkovsky, head of the Institute for National Strategy, says Putin's 70-percent approval rating is due not to his policies but rather to the fact that "in the eyes of the people he has re-established the monarchical ritual in Russia."
Putin recently told construction workers in Krasnoyarsk that a strong showing for Unified Russia would give him the "moral right" to continue to exert political influence.
Maintaining The Status Quo
There have been a number of theories about Putin's intentions. The Russian president was initially expected to anoint a loyal successor and maintain influence behind the scenes.
Then, after he named the previously unknown Viktor Zubkov as prime minister in September, word spread that Putin was planning to briefly turn over power to a weak caretaker president who would resign after a respectable interval. This would have allowed Putin to run for president again since the constitution only forbids more than two consecutive terms.
But when Putin announced in October that he would lead Unified Russia's party list and consider serving as prime minister, it fired up speculation that he was going to keep power as a sort of super-powerful premier -- which would become the epicenter of political power while the presidency became largely ceremonial.
Then came the recent wave of calls to make Putin the "National Leader," an amorphous position that some observers have likened to Iran's Supreme Leader -- someone who has ultimate authority but who reigns above the established political system.
"It is not important what Putin will be after 2008 -- head of the leading party, chairman of parliament or prime minister; the most important thing is that he should be the leader of the country,” Astakhov said in Tver on Thursday.
An article posted on Unified Russia's website on November 5 appeared to give official sanction to the idea. Party official Abdul-Khakim Sultygov called for a Civic Assembly to be convened to "formalize the institution of national leader as the foundation of the ‘new configuration of government.'" Sultygov explicitly compared the idea to the Assembly of the Land -- in which Mikhail Romanov was elected tsar in 1613, ending the Time of Troubles.
Analysts say the Kremlin elite has decided that due to the sharp and bitter rivalries in the ruling elite -- particularly among those in the president's inner circle -- Putin must stay because he is the only figure who they believe can act as an arbiter balancing the various factions.
"They are doing everything to maintain the current situation, so that nothing changes," says Leonid Kesselman, founder of the St. Petersburg-based Center for Sociological Studies. "He can be the national leader, the prime minister, president for a third term. Whatever they think up at the last minute, this is what will happen."
Fear Of Orange
The lynchpin, analysts say, is the Duma elections on December 2. Most observers say that if Unified Russia wins a two-thirds majority in the new parliament, which would give them the chance to initiate constitutional amendments, then the Kremlin will pretty much have a free hand.
"The litmus test will be the results of the elections," says Yevgeny Volk, head of the Heritage Foundation's Moscow office. "They will make their decision on the basis of these results."
Past elections have been marred by widespread accusations of various forms of intimidation and falsification to achieve scripted results. And critics say they expect the Kremlin to easily orchestrate the result they want in December.
Aleksander Shokhin, president of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs and former deputy prime minister, recently told the weekly magazine "Itogi" that Putin would then exploit loopholes in the constitution and electoral laws and run again for president in March.
And the recent wave of pro-Putin demonstrations would certainly provide cover and momentum for such a move.
Nevertheless, some analysts say the flurry of activity and adulation of Putin as Russia enters its election season shows that the Kremlin elite is getting increasingly nervous -- despite Putin's sky-high approval ratings. Kesselman says the thing the elite fears most is a replay of Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution or Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution taking place on Russian soil.
"The people are a riddle for them. Sure they are obedient, sure they love their fuehrer," Kesselman said. "But in Ukraine the people were obedient, in Georgia they were obedient, in other places they were obedient. And then, at the last minute, they became disobedient. They are very afraid of this. As I understand, they are not sleeping well."