How Putin May Hang On To Power

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin's second presidential term doesn't end for three more years. Yet Russian media are already buzzing with speculation about what's called ``the 2008 problem'' -- the question of who will replace Putin, and how the succession will come about. While Putin's grip on power is strong, the Kremlin has been closely watching recent anti-government protests in Uzbekistan, which followed popular revolts that toppled authoritarian leaders in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan.

Opinion polls show that most Russians have little sympathy for the revolutions in neighboring countries. Nevertheless, the Kremlin is revealing signs of nervousness. Putin's supporters have launched a new pro-Kremlin youth movement aimed at countering possible anti-government tendencies among young people, who played a key role in the Ukrainian events. And the Kremlin is introducing legislation to tighten restrictions on nongovernmental organizations, which intelligence chief Nikolai Patrushev has called fronts for Western intelligence agencies.

No Easy Options

What's unclear is how far Putin will go to ensure that the ruling elite, including perhaps himself, stays in power. Under Russia's constitution, no President can serve more than two consecutive four-year terms. For the current ruling group to remain in office, Putin must rewrite the constitution or find a loyal successor whom the public will support, just as they backed him when he succeeded President Boris Yeltsin in 2000. Another widely discussed idea is replacing Russia's presidential system with a parliamentary one, where the leading party controls the premiership. Under this scenario, Putin might continue running the country as Prime Minister, or in an informal position such as ruling party leader. The President would be a figurehead.

While senior Kremlin officials deny any plans to change the constitution, that hasn't quelled intense speculation. ``The biggest problem is the absence of any understandable mechanism about how power will be transferred that is supported by major elite groups,'' says Nikolai Petrov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank. Rewriting the constitution to allow Putin a third term would likely provoke strong criticism from abroad. ``Obviously it would not be a positive development,'' U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters in Moscow in April.

But the ruling elite's other option, a managed succession, is no less risky. While Putin enjoys high approval ratings, little of this popularity has rubbed off onto members of his government or Kremlin officials, who are the only obvious candidates to succeed him. Putin also faces the hurdle of satisfying both liberal and hard-line factions of the elite. Few strong personalities are acceptable to all sides. Recently, talk has centered on Dmitry Kozak, a former lawyer and Kremlin aide whom Putin appointed to oversee the troubled North Caucasus region last year. But he is little known to the public.

Of course, few Russians had heard of Putin until Yeltsin named him Prime Minister shortly before resigning as President. But the precedent is hardly reassuring. The last months of Yeltsin's presidency saw scandals, terrorist attacks, and the launching of a second Chechen war. As long as Russia's politics resemble a Byzantine court more than a developed democracy, the words ``succession'' and ``crisis'' are all too likely to go together.

By Jason Bush in Moscow

Edited by Rose Brady

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