MOSCOW - Vladimir Putin called his critics foreign-funded "jackals" and accused the West of meddling in Russian politics in a scathing speech Wednesday meant to drum up support for the main pro-Kremlin party.
The thunderous attack came as Russia heads toward Dec. 2 parliamentary elections that have turned into a plebiscite on Putin and whether he should retain power after stepping down as president next year after two consecutive terms.
Thousands of flag-waving supporters who packed a Moscow sports arena for the speech joined in chants urging Putin to remain Russia's "national leader."
It isn't clear what formal title he might hold, but he heads the ticket of the dominant United Russia party and has suggested he could become prime minister. Opinion surveys suggest the party will win two-thirds of the votes and a crushing 80 percent of the lower house of parliament's 450 seats.
With approval ratings exceeding 70 percent, Putin cast the election as a black-and-white choice between the current economic boom and the poverty and political chaos of the 1990s — doomsday rhetoric clearly aimed at getting his supporters to the polls.
"Nothing is predetermined at all," a grim-faced Putin said. "Stability and peace on our land have not fallen from the skies; they haven't yet become absolutely, automatically secured."
Addressing about 5,000 backers at the rally, which blended elements of a Soviet-era Communist Party congress with the raucous enthusiasm of an American political convention, Putin suggested his political opponents are working for Russia's Western adversaries.
"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.
He accused unidentified Russians of planning mass street protests, like those that helped usher in pro-Western governments in the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine in 2003 and 2004.
"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.
Putin seemed to refer to anti-Kremlin demonstrations planned for this weekend in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Police have used force to break up several marches and demonstrations, beating and detaining dozens of protesters.
Putin, whose nearly eight years in power coincided with rising energy prices, has repeatedly charged that the West wants Russia weak and compliant.
"Those who confront us don't want our plan to succeed," he said. "They have different plans for Russia. They need a weak and ill state, they need a disoriented and divided society in order to do their deeds behind its back."
Without naming names, Putin railed against his liberal, pro-business and Communist opponents, raising the specter of the economic and political uncertainty that preceded and followed the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
"If these gentlemen come back 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."
After his speech, the normally reserved president plunged into the crowd, shaking hands and kissing a woman. The crowd, consisting mainly of young people, responded with chants of "Russia! Putin!" Some blew horns and jumped in excitement.
With the election nearing, Putin has made a string of appearances at carefully staged events where speakers have emphasized his indispensability as a leader.
The campaign has drawn heavily on imagery from the Soviet and czarist eras, periods that still evoke feelings of pride in Russians despite their history of bloodshed and oppression.
But there is also an effort to appeal to a new generation of Russians with few memories of the country's past struggles. The scenes in the grandstand at Wednesday's rally sometimes resembled those of a rowdy soccer game.
Nostalgic Soviet-era bands mixed on stage with young performers, including a girl group in miniskirts who sang "I want someone like Putin."
Elderly women wore blue United Russia T-shirts. A young man had "Russia" painted on his shaved head, and a woman sported "Putin" written by lipstick on her cheek. Many had faces painted with bands of white, blue and red — the colors of the national flag and the United Russia party.
The speech seemed intended to transfer some of Putin's popularity to United Russia, which controls parliament but stirs few passions among voters.
An overwhelming victory for United Russia, which is all but assured given the Kremlin's tight control over the media and government, would limit the clout of his successor — and possibly lay the groundwork for Putin's return to the presidency in 2012 or sooner.
Apart from United Russia, only the Communists seem certain to clear the minimum threshold for getting seats in parliament — 7 percent of the total vote. But the Kremlin is leaving little to chance. Two top liberal parties, Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, have complained of what they call official intimidation and harassment.
Some Putin supporters have called for rewriting the constitution to allow him to stay on as president. He has promised to step down, but says he will continue to play a role in Russia and has not ruled out a presidential bid in the future.
First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told foreign reporters Tuesday that Putin wouldn't seek a position not envisaged by the constitution, but said a new parliament could change the law. He said portraying the vote as a referendum on Putin's policy was a campaign tactic, not a maneuver to change the government structure.
A parade of speakers preceded Putin to the stage Wednesday. Rifle designer Mikhail Kalashnikov and Olympic figure-skating champion Irina Rodnina both urged voters to back United Russia and showered Putin with praise.
"We athletes call him our senior coach," Rodnina told the rally. "With him, we will always win."
Putin's former teacher, Vera Gurevich, said in a taped address that Putin was an "extremely decent" person who would step down as he pledged.
"But he must stay in politics to complete the work he started to do," she said from her home in St. Petersburg.
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