Putin seeks new term as Russia president in March vote

Moscow (AFP) –


Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday said he would seek a new six-year term in the country's March elections in a move that would make him the longest-serving Russian leader since Joseph Stalin.

Putin, who has been in power for the past 18 years, is expected to sail to victory, with only token opponents competing against him.

"I will offer my candidacy for the post of president of the Russian Federation," he said during a visit to a car factory in Nizhny Novgorod.

He made the widely-expected announcement surrounded by cheering workers, who prodded him to unveil his plans in a carefully-choreographed ceremony.

"There is perhaps no better place and better excuse to announce this," Putin said in a nod to his core constituency.

"Russia will go only forward! And no-one would ever stop her in this direction."

Predictably, a chorus of Russian politicians praised the announcement, while social networks were abuzz, with many ridiculing the Kremlin strongman.

Top Putin critic Alexei Navalny, who has earlier declared a Kremlin bid even although he will not be allowed to run due to a suspended sentence for fraud, called Putin a "swindler."

"I suggest we don't agree," the 41-year-old Western-educated lawyer said on Twitter, referring to Putin's plans to seek a fourth Kremlin term.

Putin's confirmation of the Kremlin bid came as Russia reeled from a decision by the International Olympic Committee to ban the country from the Winter Games as punishment over claims of state-orchestrated doping.

But despite a litany of mounting problems including corruption, poverty and poor healthcare, the 65-year-old leader enjoys approval ratings of some 80 percent.

- 'Do you trust me?' -

Just hours earlier Putin visited a glitzy ceremony for volunteers in Moscow where he sought to rouse supporters.

"I want to ask, do you trust and support me?" he addressed the huge audience of mostly young people.

"Yes!" the audience chanted.

Before Putin took the floor prominent figures, including athletes and Soviet-era celebrities such as 83-year-old actor Vasily Lanovoi, took to the stage to extol the country's successes, such as Soviet victory in World War II.

Cosmonaut Sergei Ryazansky addressed the audience via video link from the International Space Station.

Putin has sought to appeal to the country's youth after thousands of young Russians took to the streets earlier this year to protest alleged corruption among the elites, targeting Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev among others.

The demonstrations were sparked by a documentary fronted by Navalny.

Putin, who first became president after Boris Yeltsin sensationally resigned on New Year's Eve 1999, handed power to his ally Medvedev in 2008 at the end of his second term.

Putin served as prime minister -- though few doubted who was really in charge -- and returned as president in 2012.

If he extends his rule to 2024, Putin will have led Russia longer than Leonid Brezhnev, who presided over an era of stagnation from 1964 to 1982 and became the target of derision in his later years.

"He cannot not seek a new term," independent analyst Dmitry Oreshkin told AFP.

"If he left the system he himself created he would become weak and vulnerable."

Analysts say that after more than 17 years of leadership -- both as president and prime minister -- Putin fatigue may be spreading across the country.

Many Russians say they would vote for Putin simply because they don't see an alternative to him amid the former KGB officer's chokehold on domestic politics.

With the result of the election already a foregone conclusion, turnout could be low, dealing a blow to the Kremlin' hopes for a decisive new mandate, observers say.

According to a poll conducted by the independent Levada Centre pollster last month, just 58 percent of respondents said they would take part in the polls, down from 75 percent in December 2007.

-'What will happen after 2018?' -

Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov stressed this week that those figures came ahead of the start of a political campaign, saying they were set to grow.

Many expect that Kseniya Sobchak, a 36-year-old glamourous former host of a television reality show and daughter of Putin's former mentor, will likely be allowed to run against Putin to rekindle public interest in the dull election.

With the election virtually devoid of any suspence, the question is what will happen after Putin's expected re-election and later, after his new term ends in 2024, analysts say.

"The main intrigue is, what will happen after 2018, how the configuration of power will be changing," Tatyana Stanovaya, a Paris-based analyst for the Centre of Political Technologies in Moscow, to AFP.

Speculation has swirled over the past weeks that the Kremlin may be considering whether to change the constitution or create a brand new post for Putin in an effort to extend his grip on power.

"The main task for the Kremlin is to adapt the regime to Putin's future status - be it an extension of presidential powers or the creation of a new post," said Stanovaya.