Putin appeals for stronger political oppositionOn the eve of the inauguration that formally opens his second term as Russia's president, Vladimir Putin called for stronger opposition parties within the political system he has so carefully constrained.
"If we talk about the parties influencing fates of municipalities, regions or the whole country, they must be serious, solid, competent parties having [the] support of our people," the Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported the president as saying yesterday.
The apparent call for political pluralism came as a surprise from the Kremlin leader, who was so sure of victory that he chose his new cabinet three weeks before the presidential poll in March. The question is whether Mr Putin, nicknamed Czar Vlad both for his persona and iron will, will maintain popular support now the honeymoon of his first term is over.
"Unlike Yeltsin and Gorbachev, he is the first leader in 15 years to bring stability," said Valery Fyodorov, the head of a Russian polling agency. A poll last week showed the president still holds more than 70% popular support.
In his first term, he spoke of the need to reduce poverty, to share the wealth of the country's oil and gas tycoons and to modernise Russia. He has worked hard to restore it as a world player and regional power, sending politicians to mediate political crises in Georgia, sabre-rattling after the expansion of Nato and the EU, and trading an early friendliness with the US for an alliance with France and Germany against the war in Iraq.
But he has also created what critics call a "heavily managed" democracy which has included taking control of most of the media and quieting political dissent. Now, with no credible political alternative in sight, Mr Putin alone will bear the brunt of the next term.
"He is the boss. He is also accountable for the mistakes and failures of his own bureaucracy," said Lilia Shevtsova, a senior analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Centre.
Political analysts say he will have to find a way to keep the economy growing, while continuing his reforms. Russia has profited from high oil prices, but any big decline would prevent reforms such as the rises in state salaries for poorly-paid doctors and teachers. Moves to streamline Soviet-style bureaucracy will throw hundreds out of work unless the economy is strong enough to absorb them elsewhere.
"A lot depends on the price of oil, and such dependency is dangerous," said a Duma deputy, Vera Oskina, who is part of the Putin-loyal United Russia party.
The second potential stain is Chechnya. Mr Putin claims that the war in the breakaway southern republic is over, and that the region is returning to normal - even though Russian soldiers are still dying and human rights abuses continue.
There is also the question of what happens in 2008. Mr Putin, a former KGB agent, has cleansed the Kremlin of most of the remnants of Boris Yeltin's "family" and has struck a careful balance between the siloviki, or former security agents who followed him into power, and reformist liberals.
"Further successful development of [Russia] requires the president to find a strong successor," said Ms Oskina. "I don't see a real candidate."