The Guardian, MOSCOW
Hundreds of students and state railway workers were ordered to attend demonstrations in Russia calling for President Vladimir Putin to stand for an illegal third term, documents seen by the Guardian showed.
Regional government officials demanded that schools in Tver region and railway departments in Novosibirsk provide pupils and employees to cheer for the president at Soviet-style rallies in recent weeks.
Prosecutors are examining official telegrams laying out requirements for attendance at the rallies. The papers were uncovered by opposition politicians and appear to be a blatant breach of electoral law.
It is unclear whether the compulsory demonstrations were ordered by the Kremlin or arranged by local bureaucrats eager to please bosses in Moscow in the run up to elections.
Putin has said he will not stand for a third term in March, but many of his hawkish advisers are thought to be desperately afraid that they will lose influence if he steps aside.
A campaign to keep him in power has peaked in recent days with a series of demonstrations held across the country. Putin's supporters gathered in Novosibirsk, Magadan, Tver, Volgograd, Voronezh and the capital of Chechnya, Grozny, where they hung a large banner reading: "A third term for President V V Putin strengthens Russia's role as a great power!"
Yet while Putin enjoys genuine popular support, it seems the demonstrations were not entirely an expression of free will.
A telegram from Sergey Lemikhov, a railways boss in western Siberia, to department heads, union representatives and veteran committees, gives a detailed breakdown of how many workers from each section should attend the Novosibirsk rally on Oct. 24, which drew about 30,000 people.
"Organize participation in the demonstration by workers and veterans of collectives and members of their families in the following quantities," it orders. Hundreds of employees are told to attend.
A similar order by education bosses in Tver region demands that 55 schools provide teachers and pupils to attend a rally.
There, supporters waved flags reading: "Putin, we trust you!"
The Union of Right Forces, a liberal opposition party, said it had lodged a complaint with the central electoral committee about the order.
Anatoly Lokot, a Communist MP from Novosibirsk, said: "It's very sad that the Russian electoral campaign has set off down this path, when the law is broken."
While Putin has promised to leave the presidency, speculation that he will stay at the top table of power and attempt a return to the Kremlin in 2012 is rife.
The president has hinted he could become prime minister when his term ends. In September, preparations for parliamentary elections next month took a farcical turn when Putin agreed to stand as the only candidate on the list of the United Russia party, despite not being a member.
He is likely to drop out after the vote and not become an MP, but his high ratings should ensure a landslide for United Russia, which has no identifiable policies besides slavish support for the president.