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Russian election becomes a Putin popularity contest

This weekend's parliamentary vote could shape the president's next move, if his party wins big.

December 02, 2007|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — They already sing his praises in heavy metal and hip-hop songs; plaster his face on T-shirts; peddle his framed portrait from corner kiosks. This weekend, Russians will troop to the polls to vote in a one-man popularity contest staged around the figure of their beloved president, Vladimir V. Putin.

Sunday's parliamentary election didn't start out as an approval poll for Putin. But the race for seats in the Duma seats became a sideshow when the president's many loyalists ordered the nation to treat the election as a "referendum on Putin."

In a move dredged from the history books, Russia has constructed a neo-Soviet cult of personality around the increasingly strident, aggressive figure of Putin. The election has gotten swept up in the king-making, analysts say, promising Putin a popular mandate to shift his rule of Russia into a new and as yet unclear era.

"It's a vote for a concrete person, for a regime and for the power structure that's been created," said Boris Dubin, head of the Levada Center polling agency's social-political department. "It's not a dress rehearsal. It's not the end of a new period. It's the first night of this new regime."

Strictly speaking, Putin, 55, should be in the twilight of his political career. He's a second-term president with no constitutional right to run for a third consecutive term. But with the Kremlin constantly reminding Russians that their destiny hinges on Putin's longevity, it seems clear that the president isn't about to slip quietly out of power.

But nobody knows which job title Putin will take next; the president's designs on power probably are the most debated issue in Moscow. Popular guesses include prime minister (with a weak president who could be easily outshone by Putin); some sort of latter-day czarist "national leader"; or ruling party strongman in the mold of Josef Stalin.

Others predict that Putin will use the popular mandate provided by a landslide vote for his United Russia party to justify tampering with the constitution, making it possible to run for president again.

Putin has repeatedly denied any plans to cling to the presidency, and has vowed to safeguard the constitution.

But many Russians seem exhilarated by the possibility of a third term, and nonplused by the constitution.

"This constitution was written specifically to support Yeltsin, and many people refer to it as a bloody constitution," said Alexander Prokhanov, a nationalist-leaning writer who has called upon Putin to serve a third term in office. "None of the Russian people will go and die for this Yeltsin constitution if it's violated or abandoned."

From a distance, Putin's popularity may seem baffling. But among his people, analysts say, he's struck all the right chords: After the empty supermarkets, political blood feuds and bank collapses of the 1990s, he's given Russians a sense of stability. Leaving behind the shame of the failed Soviet Union and Boris Yeltsin's drunken antics, he's made it clear that Russia is once again a strong, powerful nation, free from debt, rich in oil and not beholden to the international community.

Under Putin, Russia has increased pensions, made highly publicized swipes against corruption and, thanks to a global oil boom, presided over an era of unprecedented Russian wealth.

Politics is perception, of course, which is easily mastered given that Russia is all but devoid of independent media. Even people who complain about Russia's many lingering woes -- impoverished elderly and veterans, poor infrastructure, massive corruption -- don't blame Putin for the troubles but his underlings.

"Russia has always been a country that supports personified power," said Lilia Shevtsova, senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "Can you imagine? People do support the president, but they think his government is a piece of junk. They put Putin above the corruption."

It certainly looks that way in Moscow these days. Skyscrapers all over town sport three- and four-story banners screaming Putin's name. Every day, it seems, another Russian luminary clicks his heels and vows fealty to Putin.

Russia and its people need Putin to remain president after 2008, Sergei Mironov, speaker of the upper house of the parliament, said last month. "The constitution is not a gift from heaven," he said, dismissing concerns of undermining the laws of the state. "It was written by those who fired on their own people from tanks."

Pro-Kremlin youth groups shout his name in the streets and sic themselves on his enemies. There's also Behind Putin, a headline-grabbing group that suddenly coalesced last month to beg the president not to abandon his people.

In a recent meeting with reporters in Moscow, Behind Putin's representatives described themselves as an organized pro-Putin wave 30 million strong -- but also depicted themselves as a pack of mavericks who dared to speak truth to power.

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