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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin's Loyalty Contest Takes Off

A new type of competitive spectator sport is catching on in Russia.

Players must show artistry and dexterity while trying to outrun others in demonstrating loyalty to acting President Vladimir Putin, the odds-on favorite in March 26 elections.

The wave of people flocking to the Putin banner began as soon as President Boris Yeltsin resigned Dec. 31, making Prime Minister Putin acting president. Groups to support Putin's presidential campaign and collect signatures for his nomination have mushroomed magically all over Russia.

Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper, usually friendly to the Kremlin's chief opponent, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, offered sarcastic comment in the form of a front-page cartoon.

It depicted a line of people, their tongues hanging out, lining up to run at a target in the shape of someone's buttocks. "The Governors' Slippery Road" read the headline.

By Monday, the wave had reached Yakutia, in far-off Siberia. In Yakutsk, the republic's capital, Governor Vasily Vlasov presided over a meeting of yet another initiative group, telling his fellow Putin supporters the republic had to collect 35,000 signatures by February for Putin's nominating petition.

Mikhail Mironov, the chief of the Kremlin department handling citizen's requests and correspondence, said letters and telegrams poured in as soon as Putin was named acting president. Instead of the usual 1,000 to 1,100 letters a day, Mironov's department is now handling at least 1,500. Of the first 2,000 letters analyzed, 504 were solely devoted to congratulations.

"It is a real barrage," Mironov said. "Most of the letters come from Moscow, the Moscow region, St. Petersburg, Bashkortostan, Tatarstan, the Rostov region."

It's not just politicians who are placing their hopes in Putin. The meeting of the initiative group that nominated Putin for the presidency last week at the President Hotel attracted theater and movie stars - including actor and singer Mikhail Boyarsky, directors Konstantin Raikin, Mark Zakharov and Yury Lyubimov and a slew of others.

"I just learned that Putin met his wife at my father's concert," said Raikin, son of legendary Soviet comic Arkady Raikin and now the director of Satirikon theater. "I am also counting on some sort of personal connections. I think I can be of use to him."

Actor Yevgeny Mironov said, "I think that he will help us and we will again shoot great movies just like any great power would."

Among the first to publicly demonstrate support was Lyudmila Zykina, the Soviet-era crooner famous for singing Russian folk and Soviet patriotic hits in folksy style. Zykina used to be a member of the political council of the previous party of power, Our Home Is Russia.

In early January, she was shown on television shaking Putin's hand and saying, "I have wanted for a long, long time to meet you and tell you how much I admire you."

"Switching channels, it is getting more and more difficult not to run into Putin," television critic Maria Zheleznova wrote in Novaya Gazeta. "One must rub one's eyes - even [Luzhkov-controlled] TV Tsentr is cautiously in favor."

Putin's conduct of the war in Chechnya and his image as a blunt, action-oriented leader - burnished by favorable coverage on government television - have won him widespread public support, running over 50 percent in some presidential polls. He is considered the likely winner in the presidential election, especially if his primary opponents remain Communist Gennady Zyuganov, the flamboyant Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky.

Only last summer, the flood tide was running the other way, to Fatherland-All Russia, the coalition between powerful regional governors, Luzhkov and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. But that lasted only as long as Fatherland-All Russia's front-runner status. When the bloc did poorly in Dec. 19 parliamentary elections, the rush began the other way.

Among the first governors to publicly pledge support to Putin were those in All Russia, which broke away from Fatherland. And last week members of the Northwestern Regional Association met in Petrozavodsk and gave Putin the nod.

Even pro-Kremlin news media noted the stampede. In its account of the Petrozavodsk meeting, Kommersant, owned by Kremlin insider and financier Boris Berezovsky, described how St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev, a former leader of Fatherland-All Russia, read a statement calling on the governors for support. When he raised his eyes from the statement, the governors exclaimed "Yes" in unison.

The meeting of Putin's initiative group included heavyweights such as Anatoly Chubais, Kremlin insider and head of Russian electrical monopoly RAO UES, Rem Vyakhirev, head of the Russian gas monopoly, Gazprom, and dozens of regional leaders.

Sverdlovsk Governor Eduard Rossel said it will be no problem to collect 500,000 signatures to nominate Putin for president. "We have 64 federal agencies. We will assign each one of them 10,000. It will bring in 640,000 in a couple of days."

Bashkortostan's President Murtaza Rakhimov was surprisingly frank in his analysis. "Today the acting president has the highest chance to win," he said. "I think we will find a lot of money for Putin. There will be no problem."