President Leaves Way Open to a 3rd Term

President Vladimir Putin once again ruled out running for re-election in 2008 but left the door open to seeking a third term four years later, fueling fresh speculation that he could try to hang on to power.

Putin told a group of media executives in Hannover, Germany, on Monday that he would not seek to change the Constitution to lift the ban on a third consecutive term, according to remarks released Tuesday by the Kremlin.

"I will not change the Constitution and in line with the Constitution, you cannot run for president three times in a row," he said.

Putin pointed out that he would not be barred from seeking a third term at a later date. "True, I am not certain that I want to," he added.

Political analysts said they suspect Putin's allies are casting around for ways to keep control of the country after his term ends in 2008.

One option floated in political circles was to change the Constitution to make the presidency ceremonial, turning the country into a parliamentary republic in which Putin, as prime minister, would continue to hold the reins of power.

But Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a political observer who specializes in the country's elite, speculated that the Kremlin might consider trying to leave Putin at the helm as prime minister without amending the country's Constitution.

"The clan in power under Putin has to complete the redistribution of assets and safeguard their gains," Kryshtanovskaya said.

Liberal politician Irina Khakamada, who ran against Putin in the 2004 elections, said Russia's political elite was growing increasingly concerned as 2008 loomed closer and the fragmented opposition stepped up its efforts to mount a credible challenge.

"The people in the Kremlin are looking at several options to allow them to hang onto power and assets they have acquired through various means," Khakamada said in a statement posted on her web site.

Putin might try to secure the presidency for a trusted aide and keep his political capital by becoming prime minister for four years, she said.

"This way he could maintain his popularity ratings and after a break would return to power."

Political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky said that Putin's main concern was to ensure his successor was a pliable figure who would not harm his interests.

"He is ready to leave his post, but he wants guarantees of immunity," Piontkovsky said.