Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Presidential Knee-Slappers

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

People say that President Vladimir Putin once responded to the talk among high-ranking officials about whether he would run for a third term by joking, "Well, come up with a good way to do it."

This is one of many Kremlin urban legends. They seem to come out of nowhere like the hollow sighs of the ghosts who dwell there or like the faintest echoes of the living, breathing folks who work there. Or perhaps these legends well up inside the Kremlin itself or spring from right outside its walls, blown far and wide by the imaginations of the Kremlin's devoted servants.

In short, no one can confirm that the president was joking. Yet for those of us who are not sick of following the issue, it seems that the folks in the Kremlin are still looking for "a good way."

For a while, those in the corridors of power were toying with the idea of a parliamentary republic. In Russia? A parliamentary republic? This would mean the Cabinet, led by Putin as prime minister, would be elected by the majority in the State Duma. The actual president would wile away his days in the Kremlin, calmly watching the Cabinet do its thing.

People discussed this nonsense, really getting into the details, until even the Kremlin's cynical head ideologue, deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov -- who usually watches political scientists' attempts to interpret the mysteries of Kremlin policy with a sly smirk -- could not stand it any longer and called a spade a spade. He let everyone know this was all nonsense, using precisely this word.

And that was the end of the parliamentary republic. But then, to keep the political scientists and analysts busy, Putin himself blurted out that he could not serve three times in a row according to the Constitution, but that nothing was stopping him from running again in 2012.

Instead of understanding that the president was teasing those who keep trying to see inside his skull, serious observers instead started to talk about what the president must have meant. Apparently, Putin planned to leave some temporary manager in the Kremlin who would then pack his bags and hit the road once the real boss returned, well rested and in tiptop shape after a four-year vacation.

These so-called experts even began tossing around the names of potential candidates for the presidential temp, such as Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov or Federation Council head Sergei Mironov. Politics in Russia being what they are today, there are tons of bloodless politicians who would be perfect for the job.

If this pattern continues, the next joke should hint at what may happen in 2016. And so on, in multiples of four.

But while tossing aside these jokes, you still have to admit that there are no good ways for Putin to stay in power. On one hand, Putin does not seem to want another term as president. He is worn out by all the responsibility he has taken on due to his complete lack of trust in his closest officials. He does seem to want to go down in history as a decent politician, not a usurper of state power like Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, whom he dislikes.

On the other hand, Putin's circle has already gotten a taste of power, which is intertwined with property and wealth. These people are afraid of losing both, and there is no successor to guarantee the KGB elite's prosperous continuity.

But will Putin's circle ask him to stay and come up with a good way to keep him president? No, more likely than not, their ever-increasing desire for more power will push them to fight among themselves.

And the fight promises to be a brutal one. This is why the dull handover of power of 2000 will not be repeated in 2008.

The first step toward a political anomaly has already been taken. Russia will soon have a single day for elections, the second Sunday in March. Current Duma deputies' terms expire Jan. 1, 2008. Will they be extended for another three months? Or will the parliament be dissolved about a year and a half ahead of time to make sure that the increasingly unpopular United Russia sweeps the elections? The second option seems like the more logical one.

However, Russian history suggests a third possibility. In Russian politics, especially over the long term, people often plan one outcome, but end up with a completely different one.

Georgy Bovt is editor of Profil.