( Reuters ) - Russia announced officially the start of campaigning for next year's presidential election on Wednesday.
President Vladimir Putin has said he will respect a constitutional ban on serving more than two consecutive terms but has said he will retain political influence, keeping everyone guessing about what he will do when his term ends.
Putin, a former KGB spy who is immensely popular after eight years in power, has not said who he will endorse to succeed him.
Russia's Federation Council, or upper house of parliament, this week set the date for the election as March 2, 2008. But under Russian law the campaign is not officially under way until the date is published in the official gazette.
This was done in the Wednesday edition. "The Federation Council decrees the date for the Russian presidential elections as March 2, 2008," said the resolution published in Rossiiskaya Gazeta.
Putin, 55, is credited by supporters with cementing stability and presiding over the longest economic boom for a generation -- in stark contrast to the chaos and financial crises of the 1990s under former President Boris Yeltsin.
Putin is expected to endorse one of his circle to replace him but has not indicated who that will be. Kremlin officials say he will remain a "national leader" even after he steps down from office.
Putin is running in a parliamentary election on Sunday as No. 1 on the election slate of his United Russia, which is on course for a big majority.
The Russian president has said a big endorsement from voters in the parliamentary election will give him a mandate to retain influence over policy even after his term ends.
The start of the presidential campaign establishes a series of deadlines for registering candidates which, observers say, will force Putin to show his hand. Here is the timetable:
*Would-be presidential candidates now have 25 days -- until December 23 -- to submit their preliminary applications to the Central Election Commission.
*The pro-Kremlin United Russia may hold a party conference in mid-December -- possibly Dec 18 to Dec 20 -- at which it could announce its candidate for the presidential election.
*Candidates must submit all their documents to the Central Election Commission -- including two million signatures if they are not put forward by a political party -- not later than 45 days before polling day at 9 a.m. EST. So January 16, 2008, is the last day for full applications.
*The Central Election Commission must register a candidate (or refuse registration) within 10 days of the application being submitted, so by January 27.
*The Central Election Commission must make public the registration of a candidate within 48 hours of registration.