In Russia, a Seemingly Scripted Call for a 3rd Term

A Kremlin-backed youth group called Nashi marked Vladimir Putin's 55th birthday this month in Moscow. A new group called For Putin is holding rallies across the country.
A Kremlin-backed youth group called Nashi marked Vladimir Putin's 55th birthday this month in Moscow. A new group called For Putin is holding rallies across the country. (Photos By Ivan Sekretarev -- Associated Press)
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 31, 2007

MOSCOW, Oct. 30 -- A wave of demonstrations, billed as spontaneous public calls for Vladimir Putin to serve a third consecutive term as president, has swept across Russian cities in the last two weeks.

The rising clamor to change the constitution and allow Putin to remain as president shows many signs of at least tacit approval by the Kremlin. The demonstrations are being organized by United Russia, the party Putin has said he will lead in parliamentary elections in December, according to political analysts and documents published by the Communist Party. United Russia denies it is the organizer.

People have rallied in eight Russian cities, most recently Saturday in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk. There, local police said 30,000 crowded the central square under the banners of a new organization called For Putin.

Opposition activists, calling the police estimate grossly inflated, said that fewer than 10,000 people showed up, most of them compelled to attend by local authorities. More rallies are planned in other cities in the coming weeks, according to members of the For Putin movement.

"We are expressing our solidarity with Vladimir Putin," Novosibirsk's chapter of the group said in a statement. "We believe that despite his decision to follow the constitution, he should have all the powers that will allow him to continue his activity as the leader of the country."

In addition to the rallies, there is a growing chorus of appeals from friendly politicians and other public figures for Putin to stay. Four leading artists, including film director Nikita Mikhalkov and sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, published an open letter in the state newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta this month calling for a third term.

"Respected Vladimir Vladimirovich!" read the letter, using the president's patronymic middle name as a show of respect. We "would like to appeal to you and plead with you to stay in power for the next term. We are expressing the opinion of 65,000 artists, painters, sculptors, cinematographers, actors and representatives of the folk and decorative arts."

The willingness of the four to invoke practically the entire artistic community of Russia drew derision and accusations of Soviet-style toadying from other artists. But it has added to suspicions that the Kremlin is cultivating a public outpouring of support from intellectuals as part of a strategy to justify any decision to maintain power.

Putin's future has crowded out almost every other issue in the campaign leading up to December's parliamentary elections, which increasingly look like a referendum on the presidency. United Russia's rating has risen to 68 percent since Putin said this month that he would head the party's ticket, according to opinion polls.

A member of parliament, who requested anonymity, said in an interview that governors of Russia's administrative regions have been instructed by Moscow that with Putin at the head of the party list, they should secure no less than 70 percent of the vote for United Russia in their jurisdictions.

That would easily give United Russia a two-thirds majority in parliament, allowing it to change the constitution to enable the sitting president to run for a third consecutive term, which is now barred by the constitution.

United Russia "wants to substitute elections with hysterics about Putin's departure," Ivan Melnikov, first deputy chairman of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, said at a news conference Monday. "Now Putin's departure has been declared a threat to society. United Russia is essentially hiding its program. They make it abstract since they cannot propose anything concrete. Instead, they are mercilessly exploiting Putin's image."

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