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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Has Own Support Network

TVER -- Hundreds of activists from across the country packed a local theater here Thursday, pledging their allegiance to President Vladimir Putin and to help ensure that he continues running the country after his second term finishes next year.

More than 700 delegates at the Tver Academic Drama Theater voted to formally establish the "All-Russian Council of Initiative Groups to Support Putin" movement -- the culmination of weeks of nationwide rallies under the banner "For Putin" that critics and analysts say are being orchestrated by the Kremlin.

The delegates elected as the movement's leader prominent lawyer and television personality Pavel Astakhov, who told reporters after the hour-long congress that it was the group's duty to support Putin "independently of the future configuration of power."

Putin's second term ends in May, and the Constitution limits presidents to two consecutive terms.

Astakhov told reporters that the movement would respect any decision Putin makes about his future.

"We respect the president's position and are offering to find a place for him that will allow him to remain the national leader of the country. After all, we choose who's the boss at home. And here we are proposing to choose who's the boss of the country."

As a national leader, Putin could use lawmakers to keep his successor in check.

"The parliament can sack a president through an impeachment process," Astakhov said. "There are also other ways for the parliament to influence the president."

Putin could become the State Duma speaker following the Dec. 2 State Duma elections, in which he is heading up the federal ticket of United Russia.

"We are here to ensure the continuity of Putin's policies," Mikhail Kamanin, a delegate from Krasnoyarsk, said after the conference.

Around 15 journalists, including a Moscow Times reporter and several foreign journalists, were not allowed in the theater for the event, despite having undergone an accreditation process. Astakhov's secretary, who on Wednesday was compiling a list of journalists to attend, said the list had to be sent "to the right place" for final approval, though she declined to elaborate.

But the event featured prominently on the national evening news. Astakhov was shown on Channel One breathlessly telling delegates that "the time has come to take care of our country."

Putin "put up for a popular vote all of his merits, his entire reputation, authorities and everything he has done in the past eight years," Astakhov said. "He said: 'Yes, I trust you to make the choice yourself. Come and decide.' And we can decide this issue. We must come and say a single phrase: We trust."

The event also featured musical performances and speeches by celebrities, including ubiquitous film actor Gosha Kutsenko.

Citing several unidentified sources in regional administrations, Gazeta.ru reported Tuesday that the movement was being orchestrated by governors on orders from the presidential administration. But leading members have repeatedly portrayed the movement as a grassroots phenomenon.

"A demand has simply appeared in society for such a movement," Public Chamber member Irina Blokhina said at the congress, Interfax reported.

Astakhov has repeatedly denied that the movement has any links with the Kremlin.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov shrugged off reports of a Kremlin link.

"As far as civic organizations are concerned, they are apparently manifestations of civil society, and the presidential administration has nothing to do with them," Peskov said Thursday.

With the looming departure of such a powerful president, the political elite appears to be frantically looking for ways to keep Putin at the country's helm, even if not as president.

One senior United Russia official has floated the idea of creating an institution of the "National Leader," who would have the final say in the country's affairs.

A source close to the presidential administration said Putin planned to resign after the Duma elections and become a United Russia deputy, Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported Thursday.

Putin would then be eligible to run in the March presidential elections, where he would likely win in a landslide.

Political analyst Yevgeny Minchenko said Vladislav Surkov, the powerful deputy head of Putin's administration and Putin's chief ideologist, could be behind the For Putin movement.

Such a massive outpouring of public support -- orchestrated or not -- could give Putin the option of heading up the new movement to retain political influence, Minchenko said Thursday.

"To bet only on United Russia is dangerous for Putin," Minchenko said. "It's possible that infighting over top party posts could erupt."

As of Thursday evening, the web site Zaputina.ru claimed that 54,000 visitors had signed up to urge Putin to continue running the country after his second term ends. The site was launched last week as part of the For Putin movement.

Staff Writer Natalya Krainova contributed to this report from Moscow.