President Vladimir Putin on Thursday warned Russians to vote for him in parliamentary elections this weekend or face the country's "disintegration". He also appearing to confirm he would step down next year, in a televised address to the nation ahead of the elections on Sunday.
Urging voters to back his United Russia party, Putin warned that the liberal opposition which governed Russia after the 1991 Soviet collapse wanted to "return to a time of humiliation, dependency and disintegration."
"We should not allow back into power the people who... want to change and muddle Russia's development plans," he said.
Putin, 55, warned against the "dangerous illusion" of believing his legacy was safe. United Russia is forecast to win easily two thirds of seats in the State Duma. The tiny liberal parties are not expected to win a single seat and complain they are victims of heavy handed Kremlin tactics.
Analyst Nikolai Petrov, at the Moscow Carnegie Centre, said Putin's speech was meant to "point out enemies and raise fear."
Although as president he cannot actually take a Duma seat, Putin heads the electoral list of United Russia, which is presenting the parliamentary election as a referendum on the ex-KGB officer's highly popular rule. The television address had been closely watched for any sign of Putin's plans after he completes his second term next year and is required to step down. The only hint he gave was to say that "the result of the parliamentary elections will, without a doubt, set the tone for the elections for a new president." That appeared to confirm that Putin will not seek to override a constitutional ban on seeking a third consecutive term in a March 2 presidential vote. However, Putin has repeatedly said he intends to retain a major role, prompting speculation that he might hang on to power, or at least retain influence through a handpicked successor.
Putin is sure to win on Sunday, but needs a large turnout if he is to claim a popular mandate for retaining power in some way, Petrov said. "Since Putin has said he'll build his future on the basis of this vote, and turned the vote into a referendum on himself, then he needs a vote of confidence," Petrov said. Controversy over the fairness of Sunday's polls was growing amid what Kremlin opponents describe as a crackdown aimed at fixing the election results.
Garry Kasparov, the chess legend turned bitter Putin opponent, was to be released after being jailed for five days for public disorder during a banned protest march in Moscow on Saturday.
President George W. Bush said he was "deeply concerned" at the breakup of the rallies in Moscow and elsewhere in the country over the weekend. EU countries and Amnesty International also criticised the Kremlin.
Nikita Belykh, leader of the liberal SPS party, wrote to supporters in a Internet message that "dictatorship threatens the country," Echo of Moscow radio station reported. Belykh said some 25 million copies of campaign materials had been confiscated by police around the country. Another SPS leader, Boris Nemtsov, who has declared a bid in next year's presidential election, has come under stinging personal attacks in Kremlin-friendly media. "As soon as we declared that we were going into hardline opposition, the ruling party and Putin personally has declared war against us," Belykh said.
In an address to foreign ambassadors in the Kremlin on Wednesday, Putin pledged to uphold democratic standards on Sunday, the fifth parliamentary vote since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union. "We know the value of real democracy and are interested in holding elections that are honest, of the utmost transparency and open, without flaws or shortcomings," he said. However, Putin also warned the world to keep out of Russia's business. "I need to repeat -- we will not allow this process to be corrected from the outside," Putin said.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) earlier this month called off its election monitoring mission for the Russian elections, citing a lack of cooperation from Moscow, something that Russia denies.