Russians trust President Vladimir Putin almost as much as they do their parents and other close family members, a new survey with sweeping political implications has found.
Putin, whose public approval rating is currently 80 per cent, was cited as the "most trusted" person by almost one-in-five Russians in the poll, conducted by the independent Public Opinion Foundation in early October.
Only "family members" scored higher in the survey, being seen as "most trusted" by 28 per cent. Putin outscored close friends, co-workers, journalists, scientists and educators by wide margins in the poll.
The findings help to explain the sharp surge in support for the pro-Kremlin United Russia party since Putin, who is due to step down as President early next year, announced that he will personally head its candidate list in parliamentary elections due on December 2.
Opinion polls show United Russia leading a field of 15 parties with over 50 per cent backing from committed voters. In second place is the once-powerful Communist Party, with just 7 per cent support.
The UR party's leader, Boris Gryzlov, said at the weekend that the coming Duma elections will be like a referendum in which Russians can choose to keep Putin as the country's leader, even though the Constitution requires him to resign as president when his second term ends next March.
"The December 2 vote is a vote for Putin," said Gryzlov. "Vladimir Putin will remain the national leader whatever post he holds."
Critics charge that, in running for parliament instead of leaving politics, Putin is abusing his personal popularity to limit Russian democracy and establish himself as the country's permanent ruler.
"The Putin era is ending, long live the Putin era," says Irina Khakamada, a leading liberal politician who ran against Putin in 2004 presidential elections.
"Power is already in the hands of one person, and the problem being solved now is how to guarantee the succession of the regime."