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."
A representative of United Russia at its press office in Moscow described the rallies as the "people's initiative."
Putin has repeatedly stated that he will step down as president next year. The Kremlin also denies any involvement in the campaign to persuade him to stay.
"The Kremlin is preparing to meet in March a new president of the Russian Federation," Dmitry Peskov, deputy spokesman for the president, said in a telephone interview. "We really are witnessing a movement, a social movement, trying to initiate any possible arrangement to see Putin as president of this country for the next term. But this has nothing to do with us. The attitude of the president is very clear and is not flexible. He will quit."
The drive to keep Putin in power reflects the sentiments of a majority of Russians, according to opinion polls. It also provides a compelling backdrop for any change of mind on the president's part, according to analysts.
"The Kremlin has several scenarios on the table, and it is simultaneously playing all of them," said Lilia Shevtsova, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. The demonstrations are no spontaneous initiative, she said: "One frown from the Kremlin would stop this, but they are not sending that message."
The Novosibirsk group, for instance, is led by Olga Tolokonskaya, wife of the regional governor, who is heading the United Russia list in Novosibirsk. The city's For Putin chapter was formed Friday and by Saturday claimed to have prompted tens of thousands of people to appear in the central square.
The local Communist Party, however, published on its Web site telegrams from the local authorities ordering state railway workers to attend the demonstration. The party said the telegrams were part of a wider effort to compel state employees, factory workers, teachers, students and pensioners to turn out for the demonstration.
Similar reports of forced attendance have surfaced concerning rallies from the Russian Far East to the city of Tver, west of Moscow. An education official in Tver, for instance, told the Russian newspaper Kommersant that a day before a For Putin rally there, she was ordered to produce 3,000 teachers and students for the gathering.
"There is no doubt that these rallies and meetings in support of the third term are held because of orders from the regional and local administrations," Anatoly Lokot, a member of the lower house of parliament and first secretary of the Communist Party in Novosibirsk, said in a phone interview. "And they take their orders from Moscow."
[Elsewhere, Putin attended a ceremony Tuesday at a firing range near Moscow where 20,000 people were executed in the late 1930s, Bloomberg News reported. It was a rare tribute to victims of Joseph Stalin.
Putin said in comments broadcast on state television that while Russians should "keep alive the memory of tragedies of the past, we should focus on all that is best in the country."
Human rights activists said they welcomed Putin's presence at the Butovo firing range.]