Most Russians seem to welcome the stability their leader provides, but others count its cost, Helen Womack reports from Moscow.
"IT'S their internal affair," said Russian President Vladimir Putin suavely, commenting on street protests that had erupted in neighbouring Georgia. He paused before smacking his hand on the table and adding: "God forbid we should follow that model of democracy here in Russia."
This week, the Kremlin leader moved to ensure Russia will know none of the messiness of the Rose Revolution in Georgia or the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Instead, there will be a seamless transition from Putin to Putin: democracy the Russian way.
Judging from the thunderous applause at the United Russia party congress on Monday, when Mr Putin said it was "entirely realistic" for him to become prime minister when he is obliged, under the constitution, to give up the presidency next year, many Russians would be happy if the present Kremlin leader ruled for the next half-century.
Opinion polls regularly show that Mr Putin, a former KGB agent who has brought stability to Russia at the cost of freedom, enjoys the approval of 70 per cent or more of the population.
A significant minority, however, are cut out of the political process. Their only choices are to retreat into private life or the virtual world of the internet or go abroad, unless they want their skulls cracked for trying to raise their voices in protest.
Even the will of the majority is questionable, given the Kremlin's blanket control of the media.
Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, who has announced his intention to try to run for the presidency in March 2008, told this correspondent: "Who says that life in Russia is stable? I wouldn't rely on those opinion polls when the Kremlin controls all the television channels. Give us two weeks of uncensored television and the myth of this regime, of this stability and prosperity, will be blown away."
Those two weeks are not going to happen. Mr Kasparov knows he has no chance of becoming president. The best he can hope for is to be allowed to add spice to the election. He is unlikely even to be registered as a candidate.
"It seems we have somehow lost our freedom," mused Alina R., a teacher. "How can we get it back now?" The answer is with great difficulty, as President Putin has shown himself to be a master of sticking to the letter of the law while completely perverting its spirit.
"The trouble is," said Mikhail V., a quiet Putin opponent, "that the majority seems to like him and so I am bound to respect that."
"Putin will stay on. I'm very pleased," said Vladimir V., a pensioner, who lives on 5000 roubles ($A250) a month. "He's active and the country as a whole has started to live better."
"I like him and his politics," said Nina V., a postwoman. "He's active and charming. That's enough for me."
"I don't like the situation at all," said Tatyana T., a librarian. "That congress where he appeared reminded me of the Brezhnev era, when the workers 'begged' the leader to stay on. I feel we are turning back to the past but what can I do about it?"
"Putin, Futin, Tutin," said Marina G., a single mother. "I'm absolutely indifferent to who comes to power. They're all the same. I'm sure of only one thing: that nothing will ever get better in this country. Because the politicians live on one planet and I live on another."
On Planet Putin, the next president may be called Zubkov, Ivanov or Medvedev but it is clear that the Kremlin incumbent intends to keep power and control of the national oil wealth that goes with it.
"There is just one real politician in this country and his name is Putin," Yevgeny Kiselyov, who used to be a famous TV commentator until he was pulled off the air, wrote in The Moscow Times.
Former defence minister Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev, in charge of national projects to improve health, education, housing and agriculture, had been regarded as the frontrunners in the presidential race.
But now that Mr Putin has shown his hand by suggesting he may move into the prime minister's office, the chances of Viktor Zubkov becoming president have risen, according to analysts.
Last month, Mr Zubkov, 66, a collective farmer turned financial watchdog and fierce Putin loyalist, was made Prime Minister. The game plan seems to be that in 2008, Mr Putin and Mr Zubkov will temporarily swap jobs. (For this to happen, United Russia, now led by Mr Putin, must do well in parliamentary elections in December but its victory hardly seems in doubt.)
In four years, Mr Putin would be eligible to run for president again and if Mr Zubkov fell ill before that, Mr Putin could resume the presidency — and all would be constitutional.
"Today," wrote Mr Kiselyov, "eight years after the question 'who is Mr Putin?' was first asked, we can say with confidence that he is an extremely ambitious person who thinks seriously about his place in history. Imagine how Putin's ego is stoked when he imagines himself chairing the G8 again in 2012. By then, not a single one of his fellow world leaders will likely still be in office. But Putin will be there, immensely enjoying his role as a senior, venerable global diplomat."
Commentator Yulia Latynina, also writing in The Moscow Times, saw one risk for Mr Putin, whom she likened to a hobbit, when the moment came to hand over to a tame, temporary president.
"Putin is not a charismatic dictator or a bloody tyrant," she said. "The only thing Putin has is his Great Ring of Power. Once it falls into someone else's hands, there is nothing to stop the next president from doing what Anna Ivanovna did when she ruled the Russian Empire from 1730 to 1740: she simply tore up the agreement that would have made her a figurehead and proceeded to rule as an autocrat."
Cut out for the job: Pro-Government supporters pose with a life-size image of Vladimir Putin, who is apparently planning a return to the presidency after an interlude as prime minister
Click to view image: '104436-rgw_putin_wideweb__470x35402.jpg'
|Liveleak on Facebook|