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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Man on a Mission

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Since Mahatma Gandhi died, there's no one left to talk to," President Vladimir Putin joked recently. It was just the latest example of inscrutable utterances that political commentators love to analyze to tease out their hidden meanings. In the same interview, Putin also floated the idea that presidential terms should be lengthened from four to five or even seven years. If you examine them closely, you can see that, according to Putin's way of thinking, both ideas are connected.

What would Putin discuss with Gandhi? Globalization? A multipolar world? The all-conquering force of virtue? Mercy and justice and the way to attain them?

It is clear that Putin and Gandhi are kindred souls in at least one aspect: Both see, or saw, themselves as people with a mission. It is abundantly clear that Putin sees himself this way, and the importance of his own personal role is accentuated by his lack of trust in the country's political and economic elites.

This is why Putin is so bent on maintaining personal control over everything -- a desire that has only increased over the years. If someone makes an unauthorized move, he or she will regret the show of independence.

It also explains Putin's desire to familiarize himself with all the significant and even secondary details and figures related to the country's functioning. He appears to have all of this information memorized.

And it is because he sees his presidency in the context of a mission that Putin refuses to amend the Constitution to grant himself a third term. He will step down in 2008, despite the wishes of many of the ruling elite who would like to see him stay on to guarantee the current brand of state-run capitalism that has provided them with a level of comfort and wealth they could lose in the event of political changes. The Gandhi remark suggests that Putin does not see a worthy successor within his inner circle.

As a man with a mission, Putin does not want to see the country's economic affairs suffer from fierce political battles between competing clans. With the colossal income streams built up during his tenure and the nation's enormous and still untapped economic potential, such a battle could be vicious.

This relates to the comment about extending presidential terms. Knowing how tiring efforts to ensure a safe transfer of authority have been, he may want to give his successor more time in which to make the decision.

He also may be trying to provide the incoming president with adequate time to master the affairs of state. In a country as large as Russia, that process can take a year or two. A four-year term means that just as a president manages to grasp this, he has to start preparing for the next election campaign.

The two most frequently discussed candidates to assume the presidential mantle -- First Deputy Prime Ministers Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov -- are both experienced insiders who would need less time to get a handle on the top job. But opting for a "dark horse" candidate would be in keeping with Putin's sense of mission, since something as crucial and difficult as "molding" a president out of an outsider would be the mark of a strong leader with a unique vision.

Or Putin might simply want a longer term if he comes back after a turn out of office. This would also fit with the mission concept. Putin has not taken the country all the way along the path he intended -- toward prosperity and to a position of respect in the international community, so he may not consider his mission complete.

True, major statesmen such as Mahatma Gandhi, Mao Zedong and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk were able to shape history, but not outright alter it. So much depends on divining historical currents. Guess right and you win. Guess wrong and your mission turns out a failure.

Georgy Bovt is a Moscow-based journalist.