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Putin has only three months to decide on his political future

President Putin’s victory in Russia’s parliamentary elections earned him the mandate that would allow him to stay in power after March 2008, when his presidency ends. Putin needs to decide quickly how to use the new opportunity because time is running out fast.

Putin’s United Russia party will gather for a meeting in two weeks to pick a candidate that might replace Putin as president. The new president will be elected in three weeks. Putin will finally step down from the office in May 2008.

For years, Russia's political leaders have speculated about what would happen in the final months of Putin's last term. But the endgame is here, and the riddle of Putin's future remains.

Putin has promised to respect the constitution's limit of two consecutive terms, and not to run for re-election. But few here expect Putin to relinquish his enormous power.

Will he now serve as prime minister? Party chief? Head of the Security Council? In a new, so-far undefined post of "national leader?"

All seem unlikely or at least awkward answers to the problem of succession. Worse, perhaps, there is a conviction among many here that Putin himself has not yet decided what to do - creating a growing sense of uncertainty and fear of a power vacuum.

Things may not have gone as smoothly for Putin as he hoped in recent months.

In engineering the victory for United Russia, he may have expended more of his political capital than he expected. Many Russians reacted with anger at the sometimes clumsy efforts to manipulate the vote. And Putin seemed uneasy in a taped televised address before the election, as he pleaded for Russians to vote for him and his party.

United Russia's victory margin constituted a landslide, but the 63 percent total for United Russia was well short of the 71.2 percent of the vote Putin won in the 2004 presidential contest.

In talking with reporters Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stressed that whatever role Putin takes "will not undermine the capacities of the president." But he had nothing specific to say about Putin's next role, other than that it would "be very important" and that "his very deep expertise, his very rich experience and his political talents will be in high demand."

Putin himself was no more forthcoming, remaining silent from the time he voted Sunday until almost all the votes had been counted the next day. Only after it was clear United Russia had won 70 percent of the seats and that Putin's critics had been routed from the parliament, did the president thank voters for their endorsement of his leadership.

"Of course, it's a sign of trust," Putin said in televised comments Monday.

Still the question remained, what will he do with that trust?

Opposition leaders, independent election observers and some foreign governments criticized the vote, saying that regional authorities loyal to the Kremlin pressured voters to back United Russia. In Berlin, government spokesman Thomas Steg said Germany considered Russia's vote neither free nor fair. "Russia is not a democracy," he said.

As he has in the past, Peskov smoothly deflected foreign criticism. Russians, he said, had expressed their support for the course set by Putin in his nearly eight years as president. But can Russia follow that course without Putin?

That was still not clear.

United Russia party leaders announced plans to name a presidential candidate at their congress on Dec. 17, expressing the hope that Putin will endorse their choice. Most analysts, in fact, expect the party to endorse Putin's choice.

Peskov, meanwhile, was careful to be as noncommittal as his boss has always been.

"Certainly Mr. Putin will have, let's say, a very very important voice in taking a decision within the party on whether to run or not to run a candidate for the presidential election," he said in a conference call with Western journalists.

Putin has groomed three members of his inner circle as potential successors _ Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov and the two first deputy prime ministers, Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev. He has given each of them, in turn, important portfolios and prominent coverage on state-run television news programs.

But he has coyly avoided committing himself to any one of them, insuring that they remain dependent on his patronage.

Michael McFaul, a professor at Stanford University who studies Russian elections, said Putin is trying to prevent the next president, whoever he is, from building a political power base from which he could pose a challenge to Putin's authority. "Putin doesn't want the next president to win on the first ballot with 64 percent of the vote," he told reporters Monday.

Of the three major candidates, McFaul said, the hawkish Ivanov - the former defense minister - is the most likely to win Putin's endorsement. And for months Ivanov appeared to be the front-runner.

But Putin a few months ago seemed to pull back from supporting Ivanov, perhaps realizing that once his protege was in office, he could quickly decide to ignore the advice of his patron. "He's not going to salute to Mr. Putin sitting out at his dacha," McFaul said.

As it became clear there was no obvious successor, the focus again shifted to Putin and his plans after he steps down.

One of the more popular theories currently is that Putin will become the United Russia party chief. But Putin clearly does not relish the role of the glad-handing party boss: He has criticized the party in recent weeks, even while campaigning on its behalf, and disappointed party leaders by failing to show up at their victory celebration.

If so, Putin may be squandering a valuable political asset. United Russia gives Putin a "personal party in parliament," Kremlin political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky said Sunday night at party headquarters.

"He is the leader of a political force more mighty than all the others we know about," with control over the budget and government appointments. "I don't know what else he needs."

If Putin doesn't decide what he needs soon, some believe, he may find that his political moment has passed.

Masha Lipman, a scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center , said Putin appears to have reached the peak of his power. "The question now is, will we face an unraveling?" she asked. "Or something more smooth?"

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