Three months ahead of parliamentary elections in Russia, and six months before the country's presidential poll, it is not clear who is likely to replace President Vladimir Putin in power. Perhaps no one. Russia's constitution bars Mr. Putin from seeking a third consecutive term, and he has denied speculation that he might seek changes to remain president. But the popular former KGB agent has indicated he is open to becoming prime minister. Anya Ardayeva looks at possible developments in Russian politics in the months and years ahead.
It was a scene reminiscent of the Soviet era – massive party congress and an appreciative audience applauding a leader's speech.
Only it is October 2007, and it is not the communists, but the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party and the country's president Vladimir Putin, at center stage saying he will head the party's ticket in December elections, and might become prime minister after his second term expires in March.
Analysts say Vladimir Putin's decision will most likely guarantee the party an overwhelming victory in December parliamentary elections. And that means that the next Duma, or the Russian lower house of parliament, will be even more pro-Kremlin.
Nikolai Petrov of the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow tells us, "If Mr. Putin is leading their list, they can count on 70 percent of votes, which doesn't let a lot of votes for all other contenders, and instead of having four parties in parliament, which was planned until this, Mr. Putin's move, we can speak now about two, three perhaps, parties in parliament."
Meanwhile, another political movement, the Other Russia opposition coalition, was refused the right to participate in the upcoming elections. Authorities maintain the movement lacked proper registration criteria under the new law on political parties.
The leader of the coalition, former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, says he will run for president even if his movement does not make it to the lower house of the Russian parliament. "The goal of the Other Russia is not winning election, but to have an election,” he said. “We are trying to force the regime to accept our rights to participate in free and fair elections."
Garry Kasparov's chances appear small. Recent polls say Vladimir Putin's popularity among
Russians exceeds 80 percent. Kremlin-connected analyst Sergei Markov explains why. "Public expectations are focused on Vladimir Putin, because he turned out to be a very successful president. Unexpectedly successful. And his program is widely supported. And people are afraid that if there is a new president in Russia after Putin, he might be someone like Boris Yeltsin, or Mikhail Gorbachev."
Vladimir Putin is given credit for bringing much-needed economic and political stability to Russia. Its economy had suffered from years of unsuccessful reforms in the 1990s and is currently experiencing an economic boom based on high oil prices. And that, analysts say, is the main reason for Mr. Putin's popularity.
Critics say another reason is the opposition's inability to effectively criticize the Kremlin's policies, because most of the media in Russia is controlled by the state. The West has repeatedly accused Moscow of rolling back democratic freedoms, stifling opposition and limiting freedom of speech. The Kremlin denies the allegations.
Again, Sergei Markov of the Russian Institute. "When American officials talk about democracy, the modern Russian citizen looks at it and sees only flashing dollars in their eyes, and he sees their silent suggestion: 'Give us Russian oil and gas. Then we will say you are a democracy. Leave the market of modern weapons, oil pipelines, and then we say you are a democracy'."
Six months before his presidential mandate expires, Vladimir Putin unexpectedly appointed 66-year-old financial regulator Viktor Zubkov as the country's new prime minister. Shortly afterwards, Mr. Zubkov, who is known for his loyalty to Mr. Putin, said he might run for the presidency. Three weeks later, Mr. Putin announced he might become a prime minister under the new president.
Evgeni Volk of the Moscow office of the Heritage Foundation, says the idea is "to make Mr. Zubkov the president, Mr. Putin will become the prime minister and rather weak president. And actually in this case, even some constitutional changes could be made, allowing the prime minister, in this case Mr. Putin, to have a larger mandate."
And this scenario, analysts say, could work for everybody – the Russian public and the West. Unlike making changes to the constitution to allow Mr. Putin to stay for a third term in office, this political scheme does not violate any laws and allows the Russian leader to run again in 2012, something the United Russia Party members are already suggesting.