Russian officials 'helped stage' pro-Putin rallies

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MOSCOW, Oct 29 (Reuters) Russian officials have helped organise a wave of rallies calling for Vladimir Putin to stay on as president after his second term ends next year, according to two documents obtained by Reuters today.

Putin, 55, has vowed to step down in accordance with the constitution but signalled he will keep a grip on power, maybe by winning a seat in parliament and becoming prime minister.

But a movement calling for him to stay on as president has been gaining strength with politicians, officials and even one Oscar-winning film director calling on Putin not to go.

Tens of thousands of Russians, many holding photographs of Putin and waving banners saying ''Putin is our president'', held rallies in regional cities calling for him to stay in power.

Putin, by far Russia's most popular politician, has been careful to spin ambiguity around his plans for 2008, in what some see as an astute move to prevent himself becoming a lame duck before the end of his presidential term.

Attendance at the recent meetings, presented on state television as bursts of support for the Kremlin chief, was partly organised by officials in at least two cities, according to copies of documents obtained by Reuters.

''On October 27 at 1200 local time there will be a meeting in support of President V V Putin,'' said a telegram from local railway bosses to workers in the Siberian city Novosibirsk.

''Organise participation in the meeting by workers and pensioners and members of their families in the following numbers,'' the telegram reads.

It then says how many people from each department should go to the meeting. Passenger Carriage Depot Number 7 had to ensure at least 80 people turned out for the meeting.

Another letter, from the head of the education authority in the city of Tver, north of Moscow, told students and teachers from 55 schools to support a rally held last week.

''On October 24 2007 at 1500 at the victory monument there will be a meeting as part of the all Russian action in support of the Russian President,'' the educational authority told teachers and students in a letter dated October 22.

''I order... the heads of educational establishments to provide for participation in the meeting by teachers and students.'' The head of the local educational authority and the local railway bosses could not be reached for comment.

PUTIN FACTOR The daily Vedomosti quoted an unidentified source close to the Kremlin as saying the aim of the wave of rallies was to boost Putin's popularity above that of any possible successor, ensuring his future influence.

Moscow is awash with speculation that rival Kremlin clans are pushing for different outcomes. Some are apparently advising Putin he must stay to ensure stability; others tell him that staying in power would undermine stability.

Film director Nikita Mikhalkov, whose 1994 anti-Stalinist allegory ''Burnt by the Sun'' won an Oscar for best foreign film, wrote an open letter this month asking Putin to stay on in power to gurantee stability.

Kremlin opponents say Putin has allowed a personality cult to be built by subordinates that makes the former KGB spy out to be a modern Tsar who prevents Russia slipping into chaos.

Putin is running for parliament as the top candidate from the biggest pro-Kremlin party in December 2 elections and said this month he could in future become prime minister.

Before the March 2008 presidential election, Putin is expected to endorse one candidate -- whose name is Moscow's biggest mystery -- in a move that would almost guarantee that candidate electoral victory.

REUTERS SKB BD1920

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