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Putin plan: more democratic?

If he became prime minister alongside a weaker president, some analysts say that would create a better balance of power.

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Russian law limits a president to two consecutive four-year terms of office, and Putin has insisted he will obey that rule.

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But few precedents exist in Russian history for a supreme leader, at the height of his popularity and powers, to walk away from the job. Opinion surveys have shown that consistent majorities of Russians would prefer Putin to stay on as leader.

"There is a strong urge for stability among Russians," says Vyacheslav Belokrinitsky, a South Asia expert with the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow. "The idea that Putin will still be around to steer the ship will be well received by the public. It solves the problem for him personally because, like other strong leaders, he probably can't imagine his own future not being in charge."

Speculation has long been rife that Putin might amend the Constitution to allow himself a third term – as post-Soviet leaders in neighboring Belarus and Kazakhstan have recently done – or find another way to hang on to his authority.

During his years in the presidency, Putin has largely recreated Russia's traditional top-down autocracy in which a single unchallengeable leader rules through a bureaucracy staffed with loyal officials. The scheme that's coming into focus, experts say, may see Putin move his power base from the Kremlin to the parliament, while taking most of his former presidential authority with him.

Putin is not alone in the world in his wish to remain at the center of political action.

Mr. Chávez has found a way to stay in power in Venezuela, where he enjoys strong support that spans all classes. He reformed the Constitution to lengthen the presidential term from five to six years, and then said an individual can be elected an unlimited number of times.

"A draft of an amended Constitution has been through two readings in the National Assembly," says Emil Taqbagyan, an expert with the official Institute of Latin American Studies in Moscow. "This is Chávez's variant to prolong his plenary powers.

Mr. Musharraf, who will stand for reelection in Pakistan Saturday, is also "extremely reluctant to step away from the top spot," says Mr. Belokrinitsky of the Institute of Oriental Studies. "Sadly, this attitude is not uncommon around the world. Here in the post-Soviet region as well there is an old tradition of hanging on to power to the bitter end."

Putin will remain 'grand chief'

The issue of who will be the next Russian president, which has preoccupied the country's political class for the past year, may now decline in importance. Putin has said there might be as many as five candidates in the coming March polls, including his newly appointed prime minister Viktor Zubkov.

Putin told the United Russia conference Monday that he hopes Russians will elect "a decent, competent, effective, modern person with whom it would be possible to work in tandem."

Some analysts say Putin's popularity is so great, and his team so firmly entrenched in power, that the projected switch to prime ministerial primacy might be accomplished without sweeping constitutional changes.

"Putin understands that power has become too concentrated, and he wants to take steps to correct that," says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected analyst. As a result of this strategy, "power will become more widely distributed. But the Putin course will continue, and Putin himself, naturally, will remain one of the grand chiefs in the team that carries it out," he says.

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