Andrew Osborn








Putin's Next Role: 'Father of Nation' --- Kremlin-Inspired Film Floats Idea of Making President Modern-Day Czar

The Wall Street Journal, 8th November 2007 11:53

By Andrew Osbornand Alan Cullison

Moscow -- The Kremlin has dusted off the events of four centuries ago to help cast Vladimir Putin as a "father of the nation" who will remain influential after his presidential term ends next year.

A Kremlin-inspired blockbuster film, titled "1612," now hitting theaters around the country, sets the tone for the campaign. Produced by a personal friend of Mr. Putin, it focuses on a popular uprising in 1612 that drove a Polish-Lithuanian army from Moscow.

The dark period in Russia's history, known as the Time of Troubles, ended when a special national congress chose Mikhail Romanov as czar, ushering in the beginning of what became the Russian Empire.

"I'm convinced -- and I have nothing against democracy -- that Russians have a strong desire for a czar," said the film's director, Vladimir Khotinenko, who is open about the state's role in the film and has urged audiences to draw the appropriate lessons.

"I . . . consider the 17th century an extremely important period in our history. And now those times are really relevant."

Like Mikhail Romanov, Mr. Putin has stood up to foreign powers and rescued Russia from a period of national turmoil, in this case the 1990s, his supporters say.

After almost eight years in power, Mr. Putin has vowed to abide by Russia's constitution and step down when his presidential term expires in May.

But with polls showing that a majority of Russians want him to stay on, aides and supporters are floating ideas that would allow him to remain a compass for Russian political life in the years to come, perpetuating his political platform, now being promoted around the country as "Putin's Plan."

In recent weeks, top officials have made almost daily announcements saying Mr. Putin will somehow remain a "national leader" who will guide the government, even if he has no formal post there. That would parallel the role of the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.

A senior ideologue in the United Russia Party has gone even further. In an article posted on the party's Web site this week, Abdul-Khakim Sultygov proposed borrowing an archaic 17th century legal mechanism to codify Mr. Putin's future role as a latter-day czar.

After parliamentary and presidential elections, which he described as effectively referendums on Mr. Putin's rule, he suggests that Russia call a special national congress that would anoint Mr. Putin as the "father of the nation." In that role, Mr. Putin would serve as the supreme representative of the people, a check on the government to make sure it fulfilled his plan.

It is a formula that would appear to imitate the convention used to elect Mikhail Romanov as czar in 1613. Mr. Sultygov said Mr. Putin's role would ensure his policies are continued for years to come. Mr. Sultygov wasn't available for comment, but an aide said his ideas were "consistent" with the party's line.

Analysts say Mr. Sultygov's proposal is likely a trial balloon and is a reflection of the prevailing anxiety over Mr. Putin's imminent departure. The Kremlin, they say, will find other methods to cement Mr. Putin's "father of the nation" role without resorting to distant historical traditions.

"He will remain a national leader, but there will be nothing extraconstitutional about it," said Sergei Markov, a political consultant and member of United Russia.

Mr. Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Mr. Sultygov's initiative was a legitimate political suggestion but denied it originated in the Kremlin.

Other ideas to keep Mr. Putin influential have included making him prime minister, heading up the United Russia Party, or making him head of the national energy colossus, OAO Gazprom. Mr. Putin has kept his precise plans a secret.

The film harks back to Russia's so-called Time of Troubles, when what was then known as the Kingdom of Muscovy was beset by hunger, foreign intervention and an anarchic power struggle. Mikhail Romanov's rescue of the country embodies a clutch of current Kremlin ideas -- namely, the need for strong leadership and patriotism to confront treacherous foreign intervention.

While Mr. Putin's aides wince at suggestions that he is set to become a modern-day czar, polls give him an approval rating of around 80%. His popularity has been boosted by economic growth, as well as fawning state media coverage and a political climate where opposition parties have been almost completely squeezed out.

The film "is similar to the story of Putin coming to power, and the message is that he came and fixed the troubles," said Nikolai Petrov, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center.

Mr. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, confirmed Mr. Putin would play an important role in public life after he steps down but said it was "quite obvious" that Mr. Putin had already become a national leader and questioned the need to codify that. "It's a question of whether [the role] can be formalized," he said. "In accordance with the legislative and constitutional system, there isn't a position called father of the nation."