Source AP ©

Thousands gather to support Putin

In the latest choreographed event devoted to Parliamentary elections in Russia thousands of people gathered in a sports arena to show their support for Vladimir Putin.

Putin addressed the raucous crowd at the rally, organized by backers who lionize Putin and stress that the country must not waver from his policies after a March presidential vote in which he is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.

Before he arrived, music played as supporters waved flags and shouted, "Russia! Russia!" Many held signs with slogans such as "Metalworkers for Putin!" and "Tula region for Putin!"

A huge banner draped across the stage was decorated with the colors of Russia's flag and the bear-and-flag logo of the main Kremlin-backed party, United Russia. It read: "Putin's Victory is Russia's Victory."

Putin announced last month that he would lead the United Russia ticket in the Dec. 2 elections to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament - though he is not a member of the party and will not be obliged to take a parliament seat.

The move appeared aimed at securing a strong parliamentary majority for United Russia, which is far less popular than the president himself, and providing Putin with a powerful lever to maintain influence after he steps down.

An overwhelming victory for the party, which is expected given the Kremlin's tight control over the political system, would hand 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.

With the vote closing in, Putin has made a string of often-extravagant appearances, pumping up his image as an indispensable leader - part of a propaganda campaign drawing heavily on imagery from the Soviet era and czarist Russia, periods that evoke pride among many citizens despite the history of bloodshed and oppression.

Wednesday's rally also had elements of a rowdy soccer game atmosphere and of U.S.-style political campaigns.

Elderly women in the crowd wore blue United Russia T-shirts. A young man had "Russia" painted on his shaved head and bands of white, blue and red - the colors of the national flag and the United Russia party - on his face.

Joining United Russia at the rally were leaders of For Putin, an ostensibly grass-roots movement that was established this month and has stressed that Russia must continue to pursue the course Putin has set after he steps down.

But many vocal supporters of Putin have gone further, calling for constitutional changes allowing him to stay on as president. Putin has vowed to step down, but has strongly indicated he will seek to maintain influence and has not ruled out a presidential bid in 2012.

Putin has left it unclear just what role he will play after stepping down and how he will seek to retain clout. But the calls for him to stay bolster his position by suggesting the people want the president himself, not just his policies.

Last week, speaking to workers at a Siberian road construction site, Putin said a convincing election victory for United Russia would be a vote of confidence in his policies and give him the "moral right" to take steps to ensure they are not abandoned.

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