Czar Putin To Run Russia From the Sidelines*
By DOUGLAS BIRCH
The Associated Press
Friday, June 15, 2007; 2:12 PM
MOSCOW -- President Vladimir Putin is widely expected to give up office
next year as dictated by the constitution. But will he give up power?
Many Russians expect Putin to run the country from the sidelines once he
steps down after his second consecutive term _ and there is a growing
view that he'll return to the presidency following a period of rule by a
Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russian in Global Affairs magazine, told The
Associated Press in an interview that it's difficult to think of Putin
in any role other than as Russia's leader.
"He will stay in politics as a very powerful person" even after he
leaves office following the March 2008 election, said Lukyanov.
Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russian and Eurasian program at the
Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, agreed
that Putin will likely try to step down without relinquishing most, or
any, of his power.
"What he's proposing to do is walk out of the Kremlin and remain a very
influential guy," Kuchins said. "Most guys don't walk out of the
Kremlin, and if they do they don't have any major influence on politics.
What's he's proposing to do is entirely novel in Russian history."
At age 54, Putin shows no signs of tiring, and he is so popular _ with
approval ratings above 70 percent _ that he would likely have no trouble
changing the constitution to allow him to run for a third consecutive
term. But he has repeatedly said he would oppose this.
Such a blatant power play would only seem to validate Western criticism
of Putin as a foe of democracy and political pluralism. Worse, perhaps,
it could reduce his role on the world stage to that of strongman or
aspiring president-for-life, rather than the elected leader of one of
the world's largest economies.
Putin is widely expected to name his successor, and then throw the
weight of the Kremlin-controlled media behind that candidate. After
leaving office, experts expect him to become the leader of some new or
relatively insignificant body _ Russia's National Security Council, say
_ that suddenly will be transformed into a center of power.
Such a post would be temporary, many believe. Putin has not ruled out
running for the presidency after his successor's term ends in 2012, and
there is nothing that prevents him serving a third and fourth
"There is still a lot of time," Putin told reporters at a Group of Eight
summit in Germany, when asked whether he would run in 2012.
"Theoretically it's possible. The constitution does not forbid it."
His chance to return to the presidency could come sooner if his
replacement retired for reasons of health or to spend more time with
family, or if there were a change in the constitution that triggered
Currently, Putin's two first deputy prime ministers _ the stern KGB
veteran Sergei Ivanov and the boyish lawyer Dmitry Medvedev _ are
featured on state-run television every night, and appear to be the chief
contenders for the presidency.
But if Putin's successor is only meant to be temporary, it seems likely
that some more obscure figure will emerge late in the campaign season.
One way or the other, analysts say, Putin will probably cede formal
power at least temporarily. That, Kuchins and others point out, entails
Kuchins noted that when Boris Yeltsin named Putin acting president and
his political heir in 1999, many of those around Yeltsin, including the
billionaire Boris Berezovsky, "thought Putin would be their puppet."
If that's what Berezovsky believed, it was a grave miscalculation. After
his election in 2000, Putin had a falling out with Berezovsky and
stripped him of control of a top television channel. The tycoon fled to
Britain; the Kremlin has pressed for his extradition to face charges
related to alleged economic crimes.
The lesson is that transferring power can be risky. "The less risky
thing for Putin to do is just stay on," Kuchins said. "The more risky
thing is to try to create a new precedent in Russian history."
Several possible roles have been suggested for Putin. He might, some
say, lead the country as the head of the United Russia, the party that
dominates the lower house of parliament. Or he might become the chief of
Gazprom, the state-owned natural gas monopoly _ already regarded as a
state-within-a-state _ or some combination of Russia's largest
Some have suggested that Putin could be named leader of the Commonwealth
of Independent States, or CIS, a group of former Soviet nations known
mostly for squabbling. The thinking goes that he would weld a revived
Russian empire out of pieces of the CIS, including Russia, multiplying
Moscow's economic and political stature.
Each of these scenarios has problems.
Gazprom? Unlikely, analysts say. Too big a demotion. Prime minister in a
parliamentary democracy? Russia prefers strong leadership under a single
ruler. Head of the CIS? "The CIS is impossible to make functional,"
"It's hard to buy any of them," Kuchins agreed. "Because de facto, now,
those positions either don't exist, or they don't hold that much authority."
Experts say forecasting Putin's next move is difficult because of the
nature of politics here, which has changed less since the Soviet era
than might be expected.
The picture is murky in part due to the Kremlin's penchant for secrecy.
It is, as it was in Soviet times, a political black box: a place where
most major decisions are made privately with the advice of a select
group whose views are often guessed at but not publicly known.
"Kremlinology," the reading of subtle signs and signals based on such
esoterica as who gets more air time on state-run TV, is still practiced
here, not just by the foreign press but by business executives, state
officials, academics _ nearly everyone interested in politics.
Reading the Kremlin's intentions is also complicated by the existence of
factions surrounding Putin, some thought to be clamoring for a change in
the constitution to permit him to run for a third term, some urging him
to step aside, if only temporarily.
"I would not be surprised if they themselves don't know yet exactly how
this power shift will be conducted," Lukyanov said.
Kuchins agreed. "I wouldn't be surprised if Mr. Putin hasn't really
decided what to do himself."