Kremlin-orchestrated rallies have proclaimed him the "national leader." A fawning televised film by Oscar-winning director Nikita Mikhalkov sang the president's praises on his birthday. An open letter from a group of politically connected luminaries, including Mikhalkov, implored Putin to stay in power. Billboards proclaiming "Putin's Plan -- Russia's Future" have sprung up like mushrooms across the country.
The tsunami of agitprop is part of a tightly controlled campaign to assure that the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, with Putin as its top candidate, wins an overwhelming majority in Sunday's parliamentary elections. Putin has warned that his opponents are plotting to return Russia to the "times of humiliation, dependence, and disintegration" that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union.
"The results of the State Duma elections will certainly set the tone for the election of a new Russian president," Putin said in a nationally televised address on November 29. "In fact, the country is now entering a period of full renewal of supreme legislative and executive authority. And in this situation, it is especially important for us to ensure continuity in its [political] course."
What Putin left unsaid -- but clearly implied -- was that continuing the current political course means keeping him and his allies at Russia's helm one way or another for the foreseeable future.
It is still uncertain exactly how Putin plans to continue to dominate Russian politics after his second presidential term ends next year. But few, if any, seriously expect him to leave the scene.
Beyond The 2008 Question
Solving the 2008 riddle of how to keep Putin in power is just one part of his team's long-term political agenda. Their more important goal, analysts say, is the establishment of a new and enduring political system that disposes of the troublesome, unpredictable presidential transitions -- and the democratic elections that produce them -- once and for all.
"They have been working on different alternatives for this big transition for a long time," says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, director of the Center for Elite Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Sociology.
In Sunday's State Duma elections the Kremlin is seeking to secure a two-thirds majority for Unified Russia, which would allow it to initiate constitutional changes. That, however, would be just the first step in an opaque process that analysts say will eventually result in an even more authoritarian and centrally controlled regime. Speaking to reporters last month, Putin himself seemed to confirm this, saying that Russia would need a strong hand guiding its political system and economy for another 10-15 years.
But in hanging on to power, Kryshtanovskaya and other analysts say that Putin is determined not to turn himself into an international pariah on the order of Belarus's authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
"By all appearances, Putin wants to be seen as a respectable leader," Kryshtanovskaya says. "He doesn't want to be excluded from the world community. It is important for him to be legitimate."
And there are various ways of achieving legitimacy -- or the appearance thereof.
Squaring The Succession Circle
Putin has said that he would consider a large majority for Unified Russia to be a mandate for him to continue to play a decisive political role after his presidency ends.
"The event coming up on December 2 requires a new description, something other than an 'election,'" wrote Andrei Lipsky, political editor of the "Novaya gazeta" newspaper. "Unsurprisingly, the language-sensitive functionaries of Unified Russia have started referring to it as a referendum."
Given the wave of propaganda that has washed over Russia in recent months, and the administrative resources at the Kremlin's disposal, it is a referendum that they are sure to win.
But the question remains: then what?
Putin has repeatedly stressed that he would neither violate nor amend the constitution in order to seek a third consecutive term as president. At the same time, he has made it abundantly clear that he intends to remain a key player -- if not the key player -- in Russian politics for the foreseeable future.
"There is no alternative to Vladimir Vladimirovich. The constitution requires that a formal head of state has to be elected, and it must be complied with. But in practice there is nobody to replace Putin," Vitaly Ivanov, vice president of the Russian Center for Political Trends, wrote in the daily "Izvestiya."
In attempting to assure that nobody does, Putin's allies have floated various scenarios for keeping him in power.
When Putin announced in October that he would lead Unified Russia's party list, he also said he would consider serving as prime minister in the future. This fired up a wave of speculation that Putin 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.
Putin, however, publicly dismissed that possibility just weeks after he floated it -- saying he did not wish to change the balance of power between the president and premier.
Another possibility circulating in Moscow's frantic and chatty rumor mill has been the so-called "technical president" scenario. Since the constitution only forbids more than two consecutive terms, some Kremlin-watchers have long speculated that a trusted ally -- like Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov or St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko -- could serve as president for a brief period, allowing Putin to return to office after a respectable interval without violating the letter of the law.
Analysts have pointed out, however, that such a strategy has risks. What happens, for example, if the "technical president" starts acting like the real thing?
Moreover, such a scenario would be a short-term solution. And the recent signs indicate that the Putin elite wants to go for broke.
As election season draws closer, informed Kremlin-watchers are increasingly saying that Putin and his inner circle are considering a wholesale overhaul of the political system after Sunday's Duma elections.
In a commentary published in "Izvestiya," Vyacheslav Nikonov, president of the pro-Kremlin Politika think tank, wrote that after the elections Putin is considering becoming both head of Unified Russia and speaker of the State Duma.
"Backed by [a two-thirds] majority, and using his indisputably authoritative image, Putin would be able to transform the legislative branch into a powerful independent center of power," Nikonov wrote. "This would be especially effective if combined with control over the party which a substantial proportion of Russia's elite, including regional leaders, have already joined."
Kryshtanovskaya says Kremlin strategists have been "working on the Unified Russia scenario for a long time," painstakingly creating a vast network of party organizations stretching down from Moscow to cities, towns, and villages throughout Russia's vast regions and republics.
"So much money was spent and so much strength was used to create this huge network of party organization down to the very lowest level. It looks very much like the Communist Party of the Soviet Union," Kryshtanovskaya says.
She adds that the party's network will allow Putin and his circle to firmly establish a new system of one-party rule after the elections.
"Unified Russia will simply win the elections with a two-thirds constitutional majority in parliament and [continue to enjoy] a majority in the regional parliaments," Kryshtanovskaya said. "This would allow them to control the president, the prime minister, the governors, and practically everybody. All power will be with the party and everybody will be subject to party discipline. And the high council of the party will be like the Soviet politburo."
And Putin would become something akin to the Soviet-era general secretary -- the real ruler of the country.
If that is indeed the plan -- and the situation remains as fluid as ever -- it would entail major constitutional changes. But with a new commanding majority in the Duma, and with approximately two-thirds of the seats in regional legislatures, such an overhaul would not be difficult.
Fear of Chaos
Russia has been down this road many times before.
From the turmoil of the Time of Troubles in the early 17th century, to the chaos that followed the fall of the Romanov dynasty in 1917, to the free-for-all that ensued after the Soviet breakup in the 1990s, Russian history has been marked by long periods of autocracy punctuated by short intervals of turmoil.
The experience, says Edward Keenan, a professor of Russian history at Harvard University, has led many Russians to conclude that the only alternative to a firm authoritarian order is complete anarchy.
"The avoidance of chaos is deep in that political system. And the expectation on which that is founded, I think, is that any price is worth paying to avoid chaos," Keenan says. "People don't really want to leap into the unknown. They have been there. It's happened before, over and over again. The post-Gorbachev period, the Yeltsin period, is a period not only of chaos, but of enormous anxiety about the future for all the people who lived through it."
This, he says, explains why such a large percentage of Russians want Putin to remain in power even if that means sacrificing democracy and hard-won civil liberties.
But is authoritarian rule really the only tonic for a society with a deep-seated fear of chaos? Steven Pifer, a Russia expert formerly with the U.S. State Department who is now a senior adviser to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says Putin could have established a very different --and more democratic -- kind of political system when he came to power.
"I'm not sure it had to be this way. Putin could have taken a different course seven years ago and there could have been a more normal transition," says Pifer. "And he could have done quite a bit in terms of what he wanted to do in terms of political stabilization. I don't think he needed to walk as far back on democracy. He could have left a system behind that was capable of a smooth transition without the drama that we are now seeing."
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