“National Leader” Movement Builds Momentum

On Thursday November 15th, a new national movement was formed in support of Vladimir Putin. Entitled the “All-Russian Council of Initiative Groups to Support Putin,” the group is urging Putin to remain in power after the end of his second presidential term. The decision was announced in the city of Tver, 160 kilometers northwest of Moscow, where more than 700 delegates from 79 Russian regions came together to hold a “For Putin” congress. Putin has frequently reiterated that he will not break the constitution and run for a third term, although he has hinted that he will remain in power, one way or another.

Nearly all foreign journalists, and all but a few state-owned mass-media were barred from entering the discussion at the congress.

The new movement comes after weeks of public statements and rallies led in support of Putin, including open letters from national figures, and a massive campaign called “For Putin.”

Pavel Astakhov, a well-known lawyer and television persona, was chosen as the movement’s spokesperson, and explained its philosophy:

“It is not important what Putin will be after 2008 – head of the leading party, chairman of parliament or prime minister; the most important thing is that he should be the leader of the country.”

Astakhov denied that the group had received any backing or funding from the Kremlin, and speakers at the Tver congress repeatedly marked that it was a natural grass-roots outburst of support. Thirty million signatures in support of the president were reportedly collected and brought to the meeting in several Kamaz trucks. Gazeta.ru reported Tuesday, however, that the push of support was being staged by regional governors on orders from the administration.

Different options for Putin to retain power have been circulating in recent months. A high-ranking delegate of the United Russia party recently suggested that Putin could fill a new post of “National Leader.” The proposal resembles the institution of the Ayatollah in Iran.

Valery Khomayakov, of the National Strategy Council, told Vremya Novostei that the new movement was amusing, but in the end, inconsequential:

“I do not think that the movement was conceived in the Kremlin. It is governors and regional elites who believe that the president needs support. They may put their worries to rest. Vladimir Vladimirovich is not going anywhere. He will become the United Russia leader and retain leverage…