SIMON MARKS: On sale in Moscow today, a new portrait of President Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader's image is slowly becoming more visible here. This picture is made entirely of chocolate. It has pride of place in a downtown cafe, where it's on sale to members of Russia's nouveau riche for nearly 700 U.S. dollars. The artist says it's a tribute to Russia's leader, not part of a growing personality cult around him.
VITALI PONOMARYOV, Chocolate Artist ( Translated ): I don't think I am contributing to this. What I like about Putin is that he can unite so many people around him. We're not drawing this just to sell it. This is to express what we feel.
SIMON MARKS: But the chocolate portrait is, say some Russians, by far the sweetest thing about the Russian president. Over the past six months, while the world's attention has been focused on Iraq, he has moved aggressively to consolidate his power base here. And no one has felt the power of the presidency more than Russia's most successful businessman, oil baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Six weeks ago, Mr. Khodorkovsky was suddenly arrested during a routine business trip to Siberia. He has been in jail ever since, accused of fraud and tax evasion. He denies the charges; the courts have denied all applications for bail. Attorney Karina Moskalenko has spent the past three decades representing victims of human rights abuses, first in the Soviet Union, now in Russia. Today, she's also representing Mr. Khodorkovsky. She says he's being held by the state illegally.
KARINA MOSKALENKO, Attorney ( Translated ): I've worked as an attorney in this country for 26 years, in the '70s, the '80s and the '90s. And I want to tell you that my clients never have the feeling of hopelessness that they have now. People feel more and more unprotected from the tyranny of the authorities. And you know this is a very unpleasant signal to society.
SIMON MARKS: The Russian authorities argue that Mr. Khodorkovsky is simply a crook who became Russia's richest man by expropriating state assets during the Yeltsin era free-for-all. Many of the nation's riches were doled at giveaway prices by a Russian government that desperately needed cash.
But Mr. Khodorkovsky's arrest sent Russia's markets into a tailspin because most analysts argue that whatever the origins of his wealth, Mr. Khodorkovsky has gone to great lengths in recent years to legitimize himself and his business operations.
He had also been slowly expressing political ambitions, and funding some of Russia's opposition political parties: Parties like Yabloko, campaigning for liberal reform here in Sunday's parliamentary elections. Yabloko's leaders say Mr. Khodorkovsky's detention plunged their efforts to secure campaign funds into a deep freeze.
GRIGORY YAVLINSKY, Leader, Yabloko Party: Simply that event threatened the business to such extent that they are even afraid simply to speak to you after that.
SIMON MARKS: And that may have doomed Yabloko. Its candidates are battling to win 5 percent of the vote on Sunday, the threshold they must cross to win seats in the new Russian parliament. Some analysts say they won't make it.
Other opposition parties like the Communists and the Ultra-Nationalists, led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, are easily expected to pass the 5 percent threshold. As Russia's political season gets underway here -- Sunday's parliamentary elections will be followed by a presidential election in March -- it isn't just big business that is feeling the growing reach of the Kremlin.
In a whole host of areas, the Russian state is expanding its influence in what Vladimir Putin's detractors say is a coordinated effort to limit freedoms and turn back the clock. Take opinion polls, for example.
Over the past decade, a polling organization called Vtsiom, the Russian Center for Public Opinion and Research, won international respect for the integrity of its numbers. Headed by sociologist Yuri Levada, whose work in the '70s was banned by the Communists, Vtsiom was suddenly reorganized by the current Russian government earlier this year. Mr. Levada and his colleagues promptly quit, and set up a new company, which for the moment at least, is being allowed to function.
Others encountering difficulties in the new Russia include defense analyst Igor Sutyagin -- he's been jailed for the past four years on charges of espionage. He says the information he revealed was already in the public domain; the Open Society Institute, funded by financier George Soros -- its offices were raided twice and its records seized after Mr. Soros accused the Putin government of persecution. Russian television -- it's now entirely in the hands of government loyalists after independent broadcasters were forced off the air; and Otto Latsis, a prominent reformist journalist -- he was mysteriously mugged a month ago, and says old-style fears are stalking the press.
OTTO LATSIS, Journalist ( Translated ): There's no formal censorship, but I know how my colleagues are now writing their articles. Their inner censor has woken up. It's something that I've been seeing for 50 years in my journalistic career. When you edit yourself even before you start to write, and you know what you cannot write because it will never be published anyway. This is all working again now.
SIMON MARKS: But supporters of the Russian president insist he is misunderstood. Vladimir Putin enjoys a 73 percent approval rating in Russia today, and United Russia, a Kremlin-backed political party, is coasting to victory in Sunday's elections. The only element of suspense concerns the size of the party's win. The president himself is vowing to stay true to a reformist path. He recently told a group of Italian journalists that Russian democrats and foreign investors have no cause for concern.
PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN ( Translated ): What I can tell you for sure is that we will continue to firm up the institution of private property, we will work on protecting the rights of property owners and investors, we will continue market reforms, and cement democratic institutions -- parties, elections, the electoral system and so on.
All of that, together with the determination of the state to fight corruption and crime, will finally create a normal investor-friendly climate."
SIMON MARKS: And it is that mixture of capitalism with a determined, strong state -- "a dictatorship of law" Mr. Putin once called it -- that is proving so popular here. Many Russians seem prepared to trade away a few liberties in exchange for the economic stability that Mr. Putin has brought, and the appearance on the world stage of a Russian leader who doesn't embarrass the country like Boris Yeltsin did just a few years ago.
The war in the breakaway region of Chechnya, suddenly back on the nation's front pages following today's deadly explosion on a crowded commuter train in southern Russia, has barely been an issue in the election campaign. Most voters seem unconcerned about the Russian military's exposure in the region. Sergei Markov describes himself as a "Kremlin-connected political analyst." He's an architect and defender of President Putin's policy of managed democracy.
SERGEI MARKOV: Managed democracy, it means a combination of democratic institutions and authoritarian institutions. Of course, it's clear. Russia now is in the process ... in the process not from communist dictatorship, but from the stage of Yeltsin anarchy and chaos to the functioning democratic institutions. And on this way, to make situation stable, Kremlin has to use both democratic and not democratic methods. It's just rule of nature.
SIMON MARKS: Others here argue that Russian democracy doesn't need managing, and that a nation emerging from 70 years of authoritarianism doesn't need any more.
LILIA SHEVTSOVA: Well, this feeling of fear is creeping again.
SIMON MARKS: Lilia Shevtsova, a political analyst with ties to some of Russia's opposition political parties, says managed democracy is democracy delayed.
LILIA SHEVTSOVA: When you don't give society an opportunity to mature, when you don't give society an opportunity to raise its voice and to choose the position, to build its own parties and societies, society will never mature.
And in the end frustrated, unhappy society can become a real threat for the authorities, and we again will come to the same political cycle that Russia has become accustomed to: Bloody revolutions.
SIMON MARKS: And there are other prominent Russian voices now warning of a massive upheaval they say lies ahead. A dozen years after the fall of the Soviet Union and the fall of the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the feared founder of the KGB, The influence of former KGB men is gradually spreading throughout the Putin administration.
The president, himself a former KGB officer, is surrounding himself with his one-time colleagues. Some of the architects of Russia's free-market reforms, like former Yeltsin Finance Minister Anatoly Chubais, say members of the old guard are preparing to enrich themselves, and further consolidate their power by nationalizing recently privatized industries.
ANATOLY CHUBAIS: We really have the political forces which is really against the freedom, which is against the democracy, which is against the private property. Or at least they would like to re-privatize the Russian economy.
They would like to start this process again with the hope that they would able to get some private property under their control.
SIMON MARKS: On the ballot on Sunday, Russians will choose between 23 parties to fill the Duma's 450 seats. The outcome is important because if more than 300 Duma members prove loyal to Mr. Putin, he would be able to change the Russian constitution which currently limits the president to two terms.
The president's supporters say Vladimir Putin doesn't want a third term, but they also acknowledge he's unlikely to agree to an orderly transfer of power to any of his opponents either.
SPOKESMAN: I think that year 2008, Vladimir Putin will prefer not to have absolutely free and fair elections, but will prefer to give power to his own successor.
SIMON MARKS: Earlier today in Moscow, with a degree of fanfare, the Russian government officially opened the press center, where results from Sunday's elections will be pronounced.
The election commission that is overseeing the process underwent a change of management earlier in the year. The agency running the elections is now directly accountable to the FSB, the secret police agency that in former times was known as the KGB.