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Putin Appears to Ponder Third Term

  • Lisa McAdams

Russian President Vladimir Putin raised eyebrows and political debate this week when he appeared to suggest that he might consider running for a third term.

Russia's constitution bans anyone from running three times consecutively, but Mr. Putin pointed out that the constitution does not ban a third term at a later date.

Speaking on the sidelines of a trade show in Hannover, Germany this week, President Putin ruled out changing Russia's constitution to maintain his grip on power - a tool used by authoritarian colleagues, like Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Mr. Putin noted that he is not barred from seeking a third presidential term at a later date, all the while maintaining he is not certain he would want to run.

His comments are characteristic of the man - hard to decipher.

But leading Russian political analyst Masha Lipman, of Moscow's Carnegie Center, says in her mind it can only mean one thing: that the Kremlin elite is casting about for ways to keep control of power after President Putin's term ends in 2008.

"We have a situation in which power and property are very closely entangled so that a transfer of authority is fraught with a powerful redistribution," she said. "And also, God knows, people may well expect to go to jail, to face really serious troubles, if they lose power. This is how stakes are very high. And now even almost three years before the next presidential election, it seems that the Kremlin elite is thinking about nothing but the problems of 2008."

Ms. Lipman says this concern is leading to lots of speculation that a move is under way to find some means that would allow President Putin to stay on.

Independent political analyst Olga Kryshtanovskaya says one way in which the Kremlin might keep Mr. Putin on is through making him prime minister. In that case, she says the Constitution might be amended to create a parliamentary republic, in which the Russian presidency would become largely ceremonial.

Ms. Kryshtanovskaya says this variant is likely very appealing to the Kremlin elite, alarmed by the recent electoral uprisings in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, which ousted long-time Soviet-style leaders from power.

She says a parliamentary republic would do away with the need for regular elections every four years, which she says have now become a major stress for all former Soviet republics.

Analyst Lipman agrees anything is possible, but she says keeping Mr. Putin around could backfire, in her view, even given his enduring popularity among Russians.

"Even if [President] Putin finds a way somehow to stay on, his legitimacy will be reduced," she said. "It is one thing to be popularly elected president in an election that was not the fairest in the world, but was O.K. It is another matter to stay on, while the Constitution has it point blank that you can not."

Ms. Lipman says the other big problem the Russian elite faces before the next election cycle is the ongoing struggle between the two main Kremlin clans vying for power. If either clan reigns supreme over the other, she says, there will be a lot of political and financial losses.

But if President Putin has learned anything from his career with the KGB, and its successor agency, the FSB, it is to keep people guessing.

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