MOSCOW – President Vladimir Putin seems certain to claim Sunday's election triumph by his political party as a mandate to lead the country even after his term ends in May.
Now the main question is what specific job Putin might take to retain control -- and who will be his choice for the next president.
Putin is widely credited here with leading his country out of the social and political wilderness of the 1990s when the collapse of Soviet power nearly led to the disintegration of Russian society.
"I voted for our United Russia because life has become better now under Putin, and we don't want any changes or revolutions," said Alla Kosaryeva, a 70-year-old retiree who lives in St. Petersburg.
There is little incentive for Putin to relinquish power over Russia, which is flush with revenue from oil and natural gas and where his power arguably rivals that of many of his Soviet and czarist predecessors.
Candidates for president may register until Dec. 23. Many are expected to do so, but only Putin's hand-picked successor seems to have a real chance of winning.
Whoever is chosen is likely to be a figurehead, or could even step aside early to allow Putin to recapture the presidential office. Currently the constitution prohibits a president from running for a third consecutive term.
Two-thirds of Russians polled by the respected Levada Center recently said they would support Putin serving another term. But Putin has repeatedly promised not to run, and a reversal would be out of character for the stern, tough-talking former KGB spy.
Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist and political analyst, believes that Putin will become United Russia's party chief and that the future president would follow his orders -- recreating to some extent the Soviet-era model in which the government was subservient to the Communist Party.
"A president will be nominated by United Russia, and he will obey party discipline," she commented recently.
Sunday's election, meanwhile, eliminated all of Putin's liberal opponents from parliament. Amended election rules barred individual races that in the past allowed mavericks to win seats.
"We will continue our fight for democracy and liberal values," retiring deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov told the Associated Press in an interview Friday. "Not in the parliament, but in society. It's like in Soviet times, we are becoming dissidents because there are no legal ways to be in the opposition."
Many both here and abroad would interpret any maneuver to keep Putin in power as a major milestone in Russia's long retreat from the democratic reforms of the 1990s.
Putin's Russia is not a totalitarian state, and the current rift with the West is not yet a new Cold War. There is no gulag filled with political prisoners, no official censorship, no proxy wars being fought in the Third World.
But under Putin, the Kremlin has taken control of crucial industries. It has extended its control to Russia's far-flung provinces. Nominally independent institutions, including the courts, the media and parliament, have been brought to heel.
Abroad, Putin has challenged Western policies, accusing Washington of using "diktat" in its foreign policy. The Kremlin, in turn, has been accused by its enemies of waging a covert cyber war against Estonia, of helping rig Ukraine's 2004 elections and of ordering the killing of a former KGB officer in London using a radioactive poison -- allegations Russian officials have strenuously denied.
By choosing to make the Kremlin once again Russia's sole center of power, analysts say, Putin has also resurrected some of the weaknesses that plagued the czarist and Communist systems.
Those familiar with Kremlin politics say Putin sometimes issues orders that, filtered through Russia's numerous layers of bureaucracy, are never executed.
A topdown system of government which tries to control the media and local elections, critics point out, may find itself pursuing disastrous or unpopular policies.
Russia's past absolutist governments were also faced with periodic succession crises, which sometimes led to bloodshed. So far there's no evidence that Putin's departure would lead to violence.
But Moscow's decision to use the parliamentary and presidential elections to ratify the Kremlin's choice of leadership, rather than permit a more open competition, has created a political crisis rare for Western democracies.
Putin is not just the leader of the Russian state, he is the arbiter of disputes among different Kremlin cliques and divides the corporate and political spoils. Without him, the Kremlin might split over such issues as how far Russia should go in confronting the West and consolidating state control of Russia's major industries.
If Putin were to step down, many analysts say, Russia could go through a period of accelerated redistribution of assets reminiscent of the case of the one-time billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former chief of Yukos Oil Co., whose company was broken up and sold for alleged back taxes following his 2003 arrest.
If Putin remains in office, though, some think he will inevitably become Russia's leader for life. The pressures on him to stay would grow with each passing year, as his presence was increasingly needed to maintain a balance among bitterly divided factions.
"Putin understands very well the pitiless laws of the system he has built up step by step over the past seven years," political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky wrote earlier this year. "If he takes that final step of agreeing to a third term, he is accepting a life sentence. ... The darkness at noon of the Kremlin will engulf him forever."