( Reuters ) - Russia's biggest party will ask President Vladimir Putin to become its leader this week at a conference that could provide the final clue in the riddle of who will really run Russia after Putin steps down.
Putin has said he will serve as prime minister once his protege, Dmitry Medvedev, is sworn in as president on May 7. But for many investors the critical questions of how much power Putin will wield and for how long remain unanswered.
If Putin does accept the invitation from the United Russia party to become its leader, it would significantly entrench his power and indicate, some analysts say, that he is planning to use that position to preserve his long-term influence.
Turning down the job could suggest that Putin, after a trial period to make sure 42-year-old Medvedev settles into the Kremlin job, is planning to take a back seat.
The Kremlin has given no indications about whether Putin will lead the party. Putin is expected to attend the second day of the conference, which opens on Monday.
"If Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin headed United Russia, it would be the very best option," Boris Gryzlov, the head of United Russia and the speaker of the lower house of parliament, told a news conference last week.
"Such a proposal (for Putin to head the party) will probably be made at the congress. I could myself make the proposal and that would be the correct way," Gryzlov said.
Putin used a United Russia conference last year to announce he could serve as premier once his presidency, limited by the constitution to two consecutive terms, came to an end.
Putin, 55, is the country's most popular politician after presiding over Russia's longest economic boom for a generation and cementing Kremlin control after the chaos of the 1990s. His critics, a minority in Russia, accuse him of crushing democracy.
Investors want to know what Putin's final role will be after he steps down because they see political stability as key to Russia's booming $1.3 trillion economy.