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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin May Stay Beyond 2008

APPutin getting out of a truck during a visit Wednesday to a KamAZ testing ground near Dmitrov, north of Moscow.
One year after his re-election as president, Vladimir Putin appears destined to remain in power beyond 2008, and seems to have support from the general public to do so.

Talk about keeping Putin in power is swirling through the halls of the Kremlin, the Federation Council and the State Duma. Little of the talk has made it onto the public record, but Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov acknowledged in an interview published in Izvestia on March 2 that Putin might stay if there is "a real danger that a new fuehrer with a fascist-type, nationalist ideology" might win the presidency.

This dovetails with speculation in some circles that Putin will be unable to make good on his promise to find a successor and will attempt to extend his own reign -- possibly by scaring up support at home and abroad by warning of a power grab by hard-line nationalists.

"The name of Putin's successor is Vladimir Putin," said Yury Korgunyuk, a political analyst at the Indem think tank. "The whole chain of power in Russia has been created by him and is meant to suit him. It cannot be broken or passed over to someone else."

Monday was the one-year anniversary of Putin's election to his second and constitutionally final term as president. Putin has repeatedly indicated that he would not seek a third term, and has said that he considers it his duty to select a successor for president.

Realistically, however, there is no one who is willing or able to replace Putin, said Alexei Makarkin, a political analyst at the Center for Political Technologies.

"Putin's paramount mission now is to keep the system of power intact," he said. "His task now is to find an heir, but if he fails he will run himself."

Makarkin said Putin was hostage to a potential crisis of his own making. Over his five years as president, Putin has steadily accumulated power, curbing the ambitions of regional leaders, pushing wealthy businessmen off the political stage, marginalizing the opposition, and taming critical media.

At the same time, Putin's popularity rating has remained sky-high, at roughly 65 percent to 70 percent. A poll of 3,000 people earlier this month found that 42 percent would pick Putin if a presidential election were held in a week. The second-top candidate was "Against All," with 6 percent, according to the poll by the pro-Kremlin Public Opinion Foundation. The margin of error was 2.5 percentage points.

Putin's popularity is the most resilient political asset of his government, whose standing is deteriorating rapidly as the public grows increasingly angry over controversial social reforms and corruption.

The discontent also threatens to touch Putin, who has faced the first serious setbacks of his presidency since his March 14, 2004, re-election, with the terrorist attack in Beslan and the failure of Kremlin policy in Ukraine.

In addition, the business community is complaining about a lack of progress on reforms and conflicting signals about tax policy.

But with the lack of any clear rival, Putin may face little resistance to an extended reign. With the Duma firmly under the Kremlin's control, the presidential administration could amend the Constitution to allow Putin to seek a third term or to extend the length of the term. But this is an option that Putin has repeatedly ruled out.

Mironov said the Constitution would have to be amended to keep Putin in power, but he stressed that the initiative to do so would never come from Putin, Izvestia reported.

It could well come from the civic Public Chamber, a semi-official body that Putin recently created ostensibly to bridge the gap between the authorities and civil society, Korgunyuk said. The Kremlin oversees the appointment of its members, who are supposed to speak on behalf of the public.

Mironov did not say what the constitutional amendment might entail, but it could transform Russia into a parliamentary republic -- a change that would allow Putin to retain his power as a strong prime minister appointed by the parliament. Putin could then hand over the virtually powerless post of president to a member of his retinue.

Political analysts, however, said the Kremlin had not seriously considered that change. "The importance and ambitions of every single lawmaker would grow tremendously, and they would inevitably start spinning out of the Kremlin's control," Makarkin said.

Furthermore, Putin's recent initiative to eliminate individual State Duma races does not mesh with the idea of his becoming prime minister, said Vladimir Pribylovsky, a Kremlin analyst at the Panorama think tank.

"The pro-presidential United Russia party will never get a majority in the next parliamentary elections, in 2007, making it impossible for Putin to become the effective head of parliament," he said.

More than half of the United Russia deputies in the current Duma joined the party after being elected in individual races -- allowing United Russia to obtain a two-thirds majority.

Despite Putin's broad support at home now, the Kremlin might run into resistance when it comes time to consider changing the Constitution. To scare voters and the West into backing Putin, the Kremlin could arrange for the emergence of a radical nationalist party that it secretly controls but pro-Putin politicians insist is a genuine threat.

Pribylovsky and Korgunyuk said the Rodina party, a brainchild of Kremlin powerbrokers that combines nationalist and socialist rhetoric, would be a perfect candidate for such an ideological bugaboo. Rodina was created shortly before the 2003 Duma elections in what was widely seen as an attempt to steal votes from the Communists.

"It is a tested strategy of Russia's rulers to raise a ruckus about nationalists to make themselves look more democratic," Pribylovsky said, noting the meteoric rise of Vladimir Zhirinovsky's ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party in the mid-1990s and the extremist Russian National Unity party in the late 1990s.

Rodina members would need little encouragement from the Kremlin to kick off extremist campaigns that would make Putin look like a beacon of sanity and moderacy, Korgunyuk said. As an example, he cited the letter signed by several Rodina deputies in January that effectively sought the closure of all Jewish organizations in Russia. A few days later, Putin publicly condemned anti-Semitism at a commemoration ceremony at the Auschwitz death camp.

Last week, the Duma rejected a Rodina bill that would have allowed separatist republics in countries such as Georgia and Moldova to join Russia through local referendums.

Makarkin said, though, that Rodina had proved to be a difficult party for the Kremlin to manage, and the Kremlin leadership had little desire left to play games with nationalists.

Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, who heads the United Russia party, accused Rodina late last year of using "caveman nationalism," which he called "unacceptable in the modern world and even more so in a multiethnic country."

Alternatively, the Kremlin might use a new youth group, Nashi, or Us, to highlight the purported threat of radical nationalism. Nashi was reportedly created by Putin's deputy chief of staff and political mastermind Vladislav Surkov.

Vasily Yakemenko, the leader of the pro-Putin youth group Moving Together, recently declared that Nashi was an "anti-fascist" movement and a "healthy reaction" to the ultranationalist National Bolshevik Party, which is growing in popularity among young people.

Yakemenko, speaking at a news conference March 1, then accused liberal opposition politicians, the liberal Committee-2008 movement, self-exiled businessman Boris Berezovsky and Communist lawmaker Albert Makashov, who is notorious for his anti-Semitic remarks, of "gathering under Nazi banners," Interfax reported.

If Putin does try to pick a successor, his main challenge will be to figure out a way to transfer some of his own popularity to the candidate, Makarkin said. If Putin goes that route, he will probably name the candidate in late 2006 or early 2007, a year ahead of the March 2008 vote, Makarkin said.