Russian President Vladimir Putin has had a busy year consolidating his power. Political analysts say he orchestrated a presidential election in Chechnya to put his favorite in charge of the separatist region. They also say he rigged parliamentary elections to gain comfortable control over the legislature and served notice on potential political troublemakers by having a rich oligarch backing an opposition party arrested. Many analysts are concerned about his increasingly strong-arm approach to governing.
During the past year, Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken to saying that his decisions will be based on Russia's national interests. Critics say the phrase is code for "don't challenge the Kremlin."
Mr. Putin repeatedly cited national interests to push Russia's opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq, and later, to explain the predetermined elections in Chechnya, which installed pro-Moscow Chechen Akhmad Kadyrov as the separatist republic's new president.
Mr. Kadyrov enjoys little popularity in Chechnya, partly because of his close ties with the Kremlin and partly because of his security service, which is widely feared.
President Putin insists the elections were needed to put Chechnya on the path to peace, after more than a decade of bloodshed between Russian federal forces and Chechen separatist rebels. Western rights groups say the elections never should have been held during an ongoing war.
Analyst Lilya Shevtsova of the Moscow Carnegie Center explains President Putin wanted the election to bring a sense of normalcy into Chechnya. She says this may give Mr. Putin a political cover, but it will not rid him of the Chechnya problem.
"It seems to me [that] Chechnya has become a historic trap for Russia," she said. "And Putin himself has found at least an exit solution for himself - Chechnyazation of the war, [or] Chechens fighting with the Chechens. But so far, everybody understands, and he understands, that this is not a [political] solution. That is why the bloody bubbling will go on for a long time and unfortunately [why] we have these terrorist acts and will [continue to] have them. So, Chechnya is becoming the Russian Palestine."
Ms. Shevtsova says no matter how often Mr. Putin says Chechnya is back to normal, the republic will continue to be a festering sore for him.
Closer to Moscow, President Putin zoomed in on a potential political irritant, the head of Yukos, Russia's largest oil company. Acting in the name of law and order and, once again, in Russia's interests, he had Mikhail Khodorkovsky arrested on tax evasion and fraud charges.
Analyst Shevtsova sees the arrest of Mr. Khodorkovsky, who used some of his personal wealth to support opposition candidates in the recent parliamentary elections, as an act of political expediency.
"Khodorkovsky's case helped [President] Putin to create his own team, his new basis and his new political structure," continued Ms. Shevtsova. "And so the [recent] elections to the Duma came as the second round helping Putin to go ahead with his own political regime, with his own bureaucratic, authoritarian regime. Now, Putin is absolutely free of any obligations to [former President Boris] Yeltsin's family, to his old pals. He is starting to swim on his own. And he is starting to choose his own option, or agenda, and now he is thinking what role to choose to win the next presidency, whether he wants to be a stabilizer, or maybe a transformer. It is up to him to decide."
Leading Russian television commentator Vladimir Posner says Mr. Putin's rule is marked by a good deal of what he calls creeping authoritarianism. But he says this may well be a reflection of what the Russian people want -a strong leader who will help them rise above the squalls of the political and economic upheavals Russia has been through.
"I see President Putin is someone who believes himself to be a kind of Peter the Great, whose state it is to change Russia and, if you look back at what Peter the Great did, you'll see that he did it with a huge degree of cruelty and savageness, with the idea that actually the goal justifies just about anything you do," said Mr. Posner. "And I am somewhat apprehensive that Mr. Putin might be tempted to act the same way, having in mind Russia's best interests, but nonetheless."
Mr. Posner says the recent gains for pro-Kremlin forces in parliament - now in the majority - will give President Putin the political flexibility he needs to put his policies into effect.
Leading Russian scholar Michael McFaul of Stanford University agrees.
"In my own opinion, Mr. Putin is a control-freak," he said. "He did not need to do the things that they did to influence this election. He would have had a majority there [in the Duma], but he does not like any independent opposition. And before, the Duma was a quasi-independent place, when sometimes there was criticism. He [Mr. Putin] doesn't like that and so he squashed it."
Mr. McFaul was part of the Carnegie Center's Moscow election team, which observed the resounding victory of pro-Kremlin forces in the recent parliamentary elections.
Neighboring Georgia, where a recent bloodless revolution unseated President Eduard Shevardnadze, is also watching Russia and President Putin with a wary eye.
At the height of the anti-government protests President Putin sent Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov to Georgia to help broker a peaceful solution to the standoff. Mr. Ivanov was seen as instrumental in convincing Mr. Shevardnadze his continued stay in office created a potentially bloody political crisis.
But Alexei Malashenko, also of the Carnegie Center in Moscow, says Mr. Putin, instead of calming the transitional leadership in Tbilisi, stirred unease by appearing to support leaders of Georgia's volatile, separatist regions. He did so by lifting Russian visa restrictions for Georgians living in those regions, and not for the rest of Georgia.
Mr. Malashenko says that was a mistake.
Mr. Malashenko says the move also does little to repair the rocky relations between Moscow and Tbilisi over such issues as Russia's delay in withdrawing it's troops from Georgia and Moscow's pressure on Georgia to deal with terrorists in Georgia's volatile Pankisi Gorge, bordering Chechnya.
Georgia's leaders see Moscow's pressure as meddling in the country's internal affairs.
Observers say President Putin may well have Russia's best interests in mind, but they are worried about his increasingly autocratic rule.