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NEWS & COMMENTARY 2008 SPEAKERS 2007 2006 2005

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Russia politics: Putin and the presidency post-2008


Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is prevented by the current constitution from standing for another term in 2008, has shed a little more light on his post-2008 plans. He has indicated he will not seek a constitutional amendment to secure a third consecutive term, but has said he wants to retain political influence after 2008. Yet while this seems to rule out Mr Putin retiring from politics, there is no clarity on how he will seek to achieve this—or whether he will succeed.

On October 25th Mr Putin fielded questions from Russian citizens in a televised session that lasted nearly three hours. Mr Putin has participated in similar sessions before, and he again performed well, answering questions confidently and with a good command of detail. His answers touched on relations with Georgia, the need to diversify the economy, contract killings and many issues of concern to ordinary Russians. Among them, Mr Putin received a question on what would happen to the country after 2008? The president answered that although he liked the job, the constitution prevented him from seeking another term. He added that he hoped to retain public support, and to use that to influence the development of the country.

Two aspects of this are interesting. First, Mr Putin has once again confirmed that he does not intend to remain in office by amending the constitution. Although he has pushed through constitutional changes before—when, for instance, he abolished the direct election of regional governors in favour of a system of presidential appointment—he has consistently rebuffed the suggestion he should do so to remain in power. This is consistent with the Economist Intelligence Unit’s long-held forecast that Mr Putin will stand down in 2008.

Second, Mr Putin signalled he has no interest in retiring from politics. This was widely assumed prior to the televised Q&A, but not until now has Mr Putin directly confirmed it. It goes some way to answering the question of whether Mr Putin would walk away from politics or seek to wield power from outside the Kremlin.

Which seat?

If Mr Putin is determined to influence politics after he leaves the presidency, there are many potential options. One—which is a subject of consistent speculation—is that he could become the head of Gazprom, the 51% state-owned gas monopoly that is now the second-largest hydrocarbons company in the world by market capitalisation. In the last few years, Mr Putin has been an enthusiastic supporter of the company. Aside from the issue of gas pricing, where the monopoly’s desire for large tariff increases has clashed with Mr Putin’s goal of lowering inflation, the interests of Gazprom and the Russian state have become virtually indistinguishable from one another.

Yet although Gazprom is a hugely influential company, the CEO’s post would not afford Mr Putin a broad political remit. In this sense a political office would be more attractive. The post of prime minister is an obvious option, although under the current arrangements that would cast Mr Putin in a junior role to his successor as president. Although slightly more removed from direct power, leadership of the United Russia party might be a better option, carrying with it the possibility that Mr Putin could become parliamentary speaker. These roles would not cast Mr Putin under the direct control of the new president. Still another option would be for Mr Putin to become head of a Russia-Belarus union—although that would require messy constitutional changes.

If Mr Putin assumes a political post, another question arises: will he seek to return to the presidency after a year or two, or will he attempt to alter the power structure so that he can exert decisive influence from his new post? The premise underlying the former is that Mr Putin's successor would stand down after a year in power, perhaps on the grounds of not being up to the task; Mr Putin would then be the strong favourite in an early election and would be free to serve another two terms. With regard to the latter, Mr Putin would probably have to amend the constitution—and if he has to do that, why not simply remove the limit on him seeking a third consecutive term?

A puppet president?

Whatever plan Mr Putin hatches, the risk is that it could be blown off course by the politician Mr Putin anoints as his successor. At present there is little certainty over who this might be. The two front-runners are Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, a former Kremlin chief of staff, and Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov. Both were promoted last year in a move widely perceived to be an “audition” for the top job. However, Mr Putin is likely to delay a decision for as long as possible, to avoid becoming a lame duck, and he could easily opt for another candidate. Mr Putin’s chosen successor would then enjoy the full support of the state administration and its media empire in the presidential election.

Although Mr Putin would pick a candidate on whom he thought he could rely, and control, this is a risky course. It’s worth recalling that the clique around President Boris Yeltsin selected Mr Putin as the chosen successor, on the assumption that they would be able to influence him. In fact, Mr Putin routed that grouping in short order once he had won the 2000 presidential election. Under the current constitutional arrangements, once Mr Putin leaves office he will lack the absolute power to direct events. However, the 2008 succession will differ from the 2000 one in at least one crucial respect: Mr Putin, unlike his predecessor, will be leaving office with sky-high popularity and good health. Thus, a successor might not find it as easy to consolidate his power as Mr Putin did.

In short, there is considerable doubt over what Mr Putin will do next, and whether the plan he settles upon will succeed. The only sure way to retain power is to amend the constitution, win the 2008 election and stay in power for another term. Because Mr Putin is not inclined to do so, uncertainty abounds.

The Economist Intelligence Unit
Source: ViewsWire

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