Putin gives sign that he'll retain power

( AP ) - President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that a big win for the dominant pro-Kremlin party in December parliamentary elections would give him the "moral right" to maintain influence in Russia after he steps down next year.

Putin's remarks on a campaign-style visit to Siberia were the clearest sign yet that he intends to retain power and keep Russia on the authoritarian, globally assertive course that he has set during eight years as president.

But Putin, a former KGB officer who uses secrecy and surprise as political tools, kept Russians guessing about just what role he might play after term limits force him from office in May.

Putin has long indicated that he hopes to remain influential after stepping down, and has not ruled out a bid to return to the Kremlin in 2012. He said last month that he might become prime minister. But there have been indications that he would choose an informal path, using an overwhelming electoral victory for United Russia as a mandate to maintain authority as the people's choice for a national leader.

He said last month that he will lead the United Russia party's ticket in the Dec. 2 elections to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament.

The people who lead party tickets do not always take seats in parliament, and the Kremlin has said Putin - who is not a United Russia member - has no intention of doing so. Instead, the party has cast the election as a referendum on the popular president and the course he has set for Russia.

The expected overwhelming victory for the party would give Putin a popular mandate and a loyal parliament to limit the clout of his successor - and possibly lay the groundwork for a return to the presidency in 2012 or sooner.

On his first major trip inside Russia since the parliamentary campaign began - and which the Kremlin says is likely to be his last before the vote - Putin drank tea with workers at a road construction site in Krasnoyarsk, a vast region that reaches beyond the Arctic Circle.

Putin went to the city of Krasnoyarsk - a chaotic sprawl of czarist-era wooden buildings, Soviet-style structures and new apartment towers - to head a meeting with governors and Cabinet ministers on the transport sector. But his remarks to the construction crew in a shed on the snowy steppe outside the city turned the visit into something of a campaign stop.

"If the people vote for United Russia, it means that a clear majority ... put their trust in me, and in turn that means I will have the moral right to hold those in the Duma and the Cabinet responsible for the implementation of the tasks that have been set as of today," Putin said.

"In what form I will do this, I cannot yet give a direct answer. But various possibilities exist," he said. "If the result is the one I am counting on, I will have this opportunity."

He traded a cold-weather coat and fur-fringed hood for a suit jacket to speak to university students and instructors, promising them more attention and cash for education.

Krasnoyarsk voters gave him and United Russia below-average support in the last national election.

With the regional governor and city mayor now United Russia members, a major push is under way to ensure high support in this election. Across the city, United Russia billboards reading "Putin's Plan is Russia's Victory" far outnumber other parties' ads, and smaller United Russia signs are affixed to lamppost after lamppost along the main avenue downtown.

Other parties say the authorities use their power to promote United Russia unfairly and prevent the opposition from getting its message out.

Vladislav Korolyov, the regional head of the liberal Union of Right Forces party, said the authorities have pressured managers of potential campaign event venues not to rent them to the opposition, and police have stopped the distribution of his party's newspaper.

"What kind of moral right can he talk about?" Korolyov said. He said Putin has stifled democracy while coasting on Russia's natural resource wealth, failing to push through economic reforms and lift millions out of poverty.

But Maria Nikitina, 18, an economics student walking downtown, said that Putin's rule has brought improvements and she plans to vote for United Russia in the hope that the trend will continue.

" Russia is rising, the country is moving forward," she said.

With Putin at the helm and the election process tightly controlled, the party should have little trouble maintaining its two-thirds majority in the Duma.

Under new election rules, voters will choose only among parties, not individual candidates. Seats are allocated proportionally to parties that receive at least 7 percent of the vote - and only one party other than United Russia, the Communist Party, appears certain to clear the barrier.

Russia under Putin has enjoyed oil-fueled economic growth and a restoration of its global clout. The president said Tuesday that United Russia was far from perfect, but he suggested that no other party could guarantee stability and continuity.

Yana Grinko, a 21-year-old university student who met with Putin, said she hopes he will not stay out of the Kremlin for good.

"I hope he returns to us in 2012," she said.

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