October 11, 2007

Is there life without Putin?


Though he is something of an enigma, one thing is certain about President Vladimir Putin: he has no plans for early retirement. Rather, he is going to tower over Russian politics for some time yet -– it is simply a question of 'how'.

The constitution requires him to step down at the end of March, by which time he will have served two terms. He has so far refused to tamper with the constitution, but there is nothing to prevent him from standing for the presidency in 2012 – after a five-year 'rest'.

Yet Putin is not a man of leisure, and he has suggested that he may become prime minister next year should United Russia, the party that he backs, win parliamentary elections on December 2. He said this was an option if the new president is a "decent, capable, efficient and modern person" with whom he could work easily. Since Putin will choose his own successor, this should be easy to arrange.

There is little doubt that United Russia will win the elections, especially now that Putin has decided to run on its federal party ticket. One of three outcomes is likely to follow:

If United Russia receives a two-thirds majority, Putin could push for constitutional reform, moving the country towards a parliamentary system. This would result in a technocratic president and a strong prime minister, which would make the job attractive for Putin. This is the smooth scenario
Putin could support a trusted but powerful candidate, such as First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, for president. This would result in a system of co-habitation, which may not be palatable to Putin and may lead the new president to seek greater authority at Putin's expense. Fireworks could follow.
Putin may choose not to conduct constitutional reform, if he has his eyes set on the presidency in 2012. He would then place a trustworthy and apolitical person at the helm, such as current Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov, while continuing to exercise significant powers himself. He could assume the role of prime minister, but might prefer to conduct politics behind the scenes. This is the 'mysterious Kremlin' option that will add to the uncertainty of Russian politics.
Putin's popularity means that he has enormous room for manoeuvre. Some 91% of Russians admire his energetic style and initiative, 88% consider him competent, and 79% see him as a modern leader who cares for his country's well being. They simply don’t want to let him go -- and he is only too happy to oblige.

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