Not unlike Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf or Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, Russian president Vladimir Putin seems intent on extending his supreme power, even if his constitutional welcome is wearing thin.
Mr. Putin, who has repeatedly pledged to leave office when his second term expires next March, this week hinted that he may seek to become prime minister after stepping down as president.
Analysts say his immense popularity and his loyal political base would enable him to wield significant power in that post, while critics suggest he plans to modify the Constitution to weaken the presidency – effectively keeping his current role while switching titles.
Ironically, the net effect of such changes may be to democratize Russia's top-heavy political system and give parliament more say than it has had under either former President Boris Yeltsin or his chosen successor – Putin.
Under the current setup, the president nominates the prime minister and can dissolve the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, if it refuses to confirm his choice.
If Putin claims the top government job as leader of the majority party in parliament, United Russia, this could create checks and balances where none have previously existed. Putin paved the way for such a move this week by announcing he would run on United Russia's ticket in the December parliamentary elections.
"It's strange that democratic reforms should be enacted just for the sake of a single person's wishes," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the Center for Political Information, an independent Moscow think tank. "But if Putin's plan goes ahead, we could see a double vector emerge in Russia's political system, with a strong prime minister and a strong president, where we previously had only a single one."
Putin to join United Russia party
Speaking to a conference of the United Russia party, a political colossus created in early 2001 by the Kremlin to tame the once-unruly State Duma, Putin announced that he will head the party's electoral list in parliamentary polls slated for Dec. 2. Asked if he would consider becoming prime minister later on, Putin responded that "heading the government is realistic, but it's too early to consider it."
That means Putin is leaving, but he's really going to stay, say critics. "Putin is setting things up so that he and his group will still be in power for a third term after the parliamentary and [March] presidential elections are over," says Sergei Ivanenko, deputy head of the liberal Yabloko party, which was squeezed out of parliament when United Russia swept the field in 2003. "We are against this, and all attempts to extend power," by undemocratic maneuvering, he says.
But leaders of the United Russia party, which has blanketed Moscow in recent weeks with billboards reading: "Putin's Plan Is Russia's Triumph," were jubilant.
Putin's public popularity has seldom fallen below 70 percent since he entered the Kremlin almost 8 years ago, and was holding at 80 percent in August, according to the independent Levada Center in Moscow.
"The fact that Vladimir Putin will go to elections together with the party gives us confidence that United Russia will be able to form a parliamentary majority faction in the fifth State Duma," Andrei Vorobyov, a top party official, told the independent Interfax news agency. Crucially, a two-thirds majority would enable the party to pass amendments to Russia's 1993 Constitution.
Mr. Mukhin confirms the likelihood of such amendments.
"We expect some constitutional changes that will strengthen the hand of the prime minister and weaken that of the president," he says. "Essentially, we shall see a president who concerns himself with foreign affairs and ceremonial head of state functions, while domestic policy will be handled by the government – which means Putin."
Russian law limits a president to two consecutive four-year terms of office, and Putin has insisted he will obey that rule.
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.