The last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, called on Prime Minister Vladimir Putin today to heed protester demands and quit politics instead of seeking a third term as Russian president.
"I would advise Vladimir Putin to leave now. He has had three terms: two as president and one as prime minister. Three terms -- that is enough," Gorbachev told Moscow Echo radio in an interview.
Gorbachev's call came as the second mass protest in two weeks against fraud-tainted legislative polls ended in Moscow and on the eve of the 20th anniversary tomorrow of his resignation as the Soviet Union's last president.
The 80-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner pointed out that he himself decided to quit after it became clear that the Soviet system could no longer survive and urged Putin to follow his example by bowing to popular discontent.
"He should do the same thing I did. That is what I would do. That way, he would be able to preserve all the positive things he did."
Former KGB agent Putin served two terms as president between 2000 and 2008 before being appointed prime minister by his hand-picked successor Dmitry Medvedev.
The ruling duo has since announced plans to swap jobs after March presidential elections that Putin had seemed destined to easily win in the first round until his support began dropping on news of his impending return.
His ruling United Russia party managed to cling on to a narrow majority in disputed December 4 parliamentary elections that had been seen as a test of people's support for his decision to come back as president.
Several recent opinion polls showed Putin struggling to break the 50-per cent margin required to win the presidential vote in the first round.
But no single figure from the opposition has yet emerged as a serious contender to Putin despite the wave of protests that have rolled through Russia in recent weeks.