Russia will hold presidential elections to replace Vladimir Putin on March 2, the upper house of parliament unanimously decreed on Monday.
The country goes to the polls next Sunday to elect a new Duma, the 450-seat lower house of parliament, but the presidential vote commands the greatest attention because most Constitutional authority in Russia is vested in the Kremlin.
Putin, who is running for the Duma as head of the giant pro-Kremlin United Russia Party, is obliged by the Constitution to step down when his second term expires in March.
So far the hyper-popular incumbent, whose public approval rating is currently over 80 per cent, has not named a successor or clearly spelled out his own personal plans. That has fuelled widespread speculation that he may be intending to use this Sunday's Duma election, which UR is expected to win by a huge margin, as a means of reshuffling Russia's political deck and remaining in power -- perhaps as prime minister or Speaker of Parliament.
At least two of the opposition's likely presidential candidates are currently in prison.
Chess champion Garry Kasparov, head of the pro-democracy Other Russia coalition, and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, who will run for the liberal Union of Right Forces, were both arrested during weekend anti-Kremlin rallies in Moscow and St. Petersburg and sentenced to several days in jail for holding an "unauthorized demonstration".