MOSCOW – President Vladimir Putin likened his critics to "jackals" fed by foreign funding, and he accused the West of meddling in Russian politics, telling a campaign rally Wednesday that foes at home and abroad want to weaken the country.
Putin is seeking to secure a high turnout in parliamentary elections on Dec. 2 and strong support for the main pro-Kremlin party, United Russia, which he is leading on the ballot — a move widely seen as a maneuver to hold onto power after he steps down next year.
Addressing thousands of backers in an event that mixed the flavors of a U.S. political convention and a Soviet-era Communist Party congress, Putin painted a grim picture of the turmoil in the 1990s in Russia and suggested that his Western-backed political foes were bent on turning the clock back.
"Those who confront us need a weak and ill state. They want to have a divided society, in order to do their deeds behind its back," he said.
A strong United Russia majority in parliament was needed to preserve his course, he said.
"Regrettably, there are those inside the country who feed off foreign embassies like jackals and count on support of foreign funds and governments, and not their own people," Putin said.
"Now, they're going to take to the streets. They have learned from Western experts and have received some training in neighboring (ex-Soviet) republics. And now they are going to stage provocations here," he said, raising the specter of the upheavals that brought Western-oriented leaders to power in Georgia and Ukraine.
The statement appeared to refer to opposition rallies planned this weekend in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Police have forcefully dispersed several previous marches and demonstrations, beating and detaining scores of protesters.
Without naming nations or specific parties, he railed against his liberal, pro-business and Communist opponents, evoking the frightening economic and political uncertainty that pervaded Russia in the years before and after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
"If these gentlemen return to power, they will again cheat people and fill their pockets," he said. "They want to restore an oligarchic regime, based on corruption and lies."
The comments constituted Putin's fiercest verbal attack on opponents ahead of the election, which the popular leader has turned into a referendum on his policies by announcing last month that he would lead United Russia.
The move appeared aimed at securing a strong parliamentary majority for United Russia, which is far less popular than the president himself, and providing Putin — who is barred from seeking a third straight term in March presidential elections — with a powerful lever to maintain influence after he steps down.
"The vote on Dec. 2 will to large extent determine the fate of the country. By all means, come to the polls and vote for United Russia," Putin said.
An overwhelming victory for the party, which is expected given the Kremlin's tight control over the political system, would hand Putin a popular mandate and a loyal parliament to limit the clout of his successor — and possibly lay the groundwork for a return to the presidency in 2012 or sooner.
Putin said a convincing United Russia victory is needed to ensure continuity and fend off what he portrayed as destructive efforts to change the country's course. Again pointing at foes at home and abroad, he cast the election as a starkly clear-cut choice, equating a vote for United Russia with a vote for stability.
"Nothing is predetermined at all," Putin said. "Stability and peace on our land have not fallen from the skies, they haven't yet become absolutely, automatically secured. This is the result of a very fierce fight, both inside the country and in the international arena."
Putin, whose eight years in power have brought an oil-fueled economic revival, has repeatedly raised the specter of Western influence — suggesting that Russia has gotten up off its knees after a humiliating period in the 1990s and that foreign governments are frightened by its resurgence.
With the vote closing in, Putin has made a string of often-extravagant appearances, pumping up his image as an indispensable leader — part of a choreographed propaganda campaign drawing heavily on imagery from the Soviet era and czarist Russia, periods that evoke pride despite the history of bloodshed and oppression.
Wednesday's rally at a sports arena also blended elements of a rowdy soccer game atmosphere and U.S.-style political campaigns with vestiges of the Soviet past. Soviet-era bands mixed on stage with young performers, including a girl group that sang "I want someone like Putin."
Elderly women in the crowd wore blue United Russia T-shirts. A young man had "Russia" painted on his shaved head, and many had painted their faces with bands of white, blue and red — the colors of the national flag and the United Russia party.
The closely choreographed outpouring for Putin bolsters his position by suggesting the people want the president himself to stay on, and not just his policies.
Many supporters of Putin have called for constitutional changes allowing him to remain president. Putin has vowed to step down, but indicated he would seek to maintain influence — though he has not said how or in what role — and he has not ruled out a presidential bid in 2012.
Putin has left it unclear just what role he will play and how he will seek to retain clout. But the calls for him to stay bolster his position by suggesting the people want the president himself, not just his policies.