Who wants a third term for President Putin?


“He’ll agree – what choice does he have?” This “artless remark” (according to Izvestia newspaper observer Maxim Sokolov) was the response of Ramzan Kadyrov, prime minister of Chechnya, when he was asked to comment on the latest initiative – this one from the Chechen parliament – to enable Vladimir Putin to run for a third term in office.

With the start of the new political season, the idea of extending the incumbent president’s time in power – contrary to all his statements – has taken on a new lease of life. The general opinion of the press is that all the appeals to the Kremlin from regional parliaments and community organizations (even “Cossack circles,” according to Expertise Foundation President Mark Urnov) are being organized by a certain Kremlin “influence group” with an interest in keeping Putin in power.

In an article for the Moskovskie Novosti weekly, Mark Urnov says: “Some argue that Putin has no reason to seek an illegitimate third term, when he can have two legitimate terms starting from 2012. I don’t take these arguments seriously. In our country, who can guarantee anything even two years ahead?”

However, since the authorities clearly haven’t made a final decision as yet on how to solve the Year 2008 Problem, political analysts and the press are offering the Kremlin and the public numerous scenarios of their own – with varying degrees of sophistication.

According to Urnov, “the most sensible way of keeping Putin in power would be to make him the leader of the United Russia party.”

If it’s headed by the president and secures a constitutional majority in the election of 2007, United Russia could then pass “a few neat and tidy laws.” For example, a law specifying that the president must choose a prime minister from the candidates nominated by the Duma majority. At the same time (and this is essential!), the prime minister rather than the president would control the security and law enforcement agencies (siloviki).

Next step: Putin, strictly according to the Constitution, declines a third term – and Dmitri Medvedev, for example, becomes president (a president who no longer controls the siloviki). Following the Duma majority’s recommendation, he then appoints Putin as prime minister. And then Russia changes from a presidential republic to “a parliamentary republic like Germany, fully in line with the Constitution, and saving face.”

In that case, says Urnov, Russia would have every right to claim that “we’re now just like Japan or India – in transition from totalitarianism to effective democracy, with a dominant party within a multi-party system.”

Moskovskie Novosti explains: “After all, we want to be members of the Western Club, and substantial numbers of Russia’s elite keep their money in the West. They want to live well and have some guarantees against being brought down.” Consequently, measures are being taken to suppress any potential opponents. “If the people don’t care to vote in such elections, legislation could be passed to lower the minimal required voter turnout to 20%. And everything would be on an entirely legitimate basis.”

Profil magazine proposes a scenario of its own, linking the solution to the Year 2008 Problem with the formation, initiated by Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov, of what is presumed to be a supplementary Kremlin party – otherwise known as the “second leg,” or the “relevant left.” This new alliance is made up of the Russian Party of Life (RPL), the Motherland (Rodina) party, and the Russian Party of Pensioners (RPP). To make this plan work, the alliance would need to get a reasonably decent result in the Duma election of 2007.

According to Profil, such a result is entirely achievable, given the support of the Kremlin and state-controlled television. Besides, Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the presidential administration, set out some specific objectives in his speech to RPL lawmakers: capturing part of the communist and nationalist electorate – those who “don’t support the authorities, but are not their antagonists either.” If the RPL succeeds in this task, its result could be impressive: up to 15% of the vote.

After that, according to Profil, Mironov could step down as speaker of the Federation Council and becomes the leader of the “relevant left” faction in the Duma.

It’s worth noting here that Surkov warned RPL activists against any confrontation with United Russia: “The more you spar with each other, the worse it might be for everyone.”

According to Profil, keeping Mironov as Federation Council speaker under those circumstances might lead to “unhealthy rivalry between the two houses of parliament”: with the Federation Council becoming a kind of headquarters for the “relevant left,” with the constitutional right to veto United Russia’s bills forwarded from the Duma. But if Mironov moves to the Duma, the “battle between our own” would be channeled into normal parliamentary debate, which could only be a welcome development in terms of observance of democratic standards.

The next phase of this plan would happen after the presidential election, with Putin moving to replace Mironov as Federation Council speaker. (That is the title of the Profil article: “Putin as Mironov’s Successor.”)

“Putin, Federation Council speaker” – it sounds strange, but only at first, says Profil, arguing that this office (compared with Putin’s most frequently predicted potential jobs – Gazprom CEO, prime minister, United Russia leader) has a number of advantages.

“Firstly,” says Profil, “the prime minister always becomes a scapegoat in the event of any disaster; and the chief executive of a monopoly always gets caught up in other people’s initiatives (at the political level, he becomes a treasurer for pro-Kremlin parties or national projects).”

As for the post of United Russia, that’s only good if Vladislav Surkov, United Russia’s Kremlin handler, is your subordinate – “but if it’s the other way round, the job’s value becomes dubious.” Meanwhile, control over voting in the upper house is a substantial resource: it means being able to veto the Duma’s decisions, appointing the prosecutor general, and so on.

Besides, says Profil, the state office hierarchy in Russia is hardly set in stone. At present, the Federation Council speaker is third in seniority after the president and the prime minister: “But this could be changed: a Federation Council speaker named Putin could well be the second most senior state official, de jure, with a de facto role as ‘father of the nation.'”

Profil reports that presidential administration officials claim, off the record, that the final decision regarding the successor’s identity and the handover technique will be made entirely by Putin himself – and not yet, apparently, but closer to 2008. And Putin will make the decision “all by himself.” According to a Kremlin source, “On the one hand, that’s part of Putin’s character: he’s got an intelligence agent’s habit of secrecy. On the other hand, he also has political reasons for not revealing the secret prematurely – he doesn’t want to become a lame duck.”

And meanwhile, remaining in ignorance, Putin’s Kremlin team – Surkov and everyone else involved in 2008 preparations – “are aiming to anticipate events, preparing the ground for several scenarios at once.” And among those scenarios, says Profil, might well be the one described above: Putin becoming the Federation Council speaker, and controlling his successor (whoever he may be) from that position.

Another option is proposed by Smart Money magazine.

Smart Money quotes Andrei Isayev, one of United Russia’s leaders, who commented on the alliance of “three political losers” – the RPL, Motherland, and the RPP – with some advice: “Learn Albanian!”

Isayev admits that the alliance of these three organizations will be able to take some votes away from the Communist Party. But he openly mocks the ambition of the “relevant left” to create some real competition for United Russia, saying that it’s like Albania suddenly deciding to compete with the United States.

Isayev’s view would seem to be indisputable. The new alliance – provisionally known as the Union of Confidence – has a combined total of 3% voter support, so it will have a hard time getting past the 7% threshold in the next Duma election.

The RPL, headed by “the inarticulate Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov,” hasn’t recorded any notable achievements at either the federal or regional level.

Motherland’s situation is no better; as Smart Money puts it, “it’s clinically dead – the Kremlin has forbidden it to score political points by using xenophobic and anti-oligarch rhetoric, but Motherland doesn’t know how to do anything else.”

The RPP is also in a lamentable position: “after a series of unsanctioned successes in regional elections, it lost its charismatic leader and found itself on a short leash held by Vladislav Surkov.”

Smart Money then asks: “Do politicians who are loyal to Putin but don’t get along with United Russia have any chance of winning significant political market share away from United Russia?”

Poll results from the Levada Center polling agency, cited in Smart Money, indicate that at least 40% of Putin’s supporters remain outside United Russia’s electorate.

Besides, “United Russia’s elite club” is getting overcrowded; there are fewer and fewer places for those seeking to get close to the Kremlin. And now here’s Mironov, handing out invitations to join his own club; the invitations may be cheaper, but they have also been printed in the Kremlin – after all, Vladislav Surkov initiated the “relevant left” unification process.

Thus, the “relevant left” does have a chance of attracting the support of “politicians and business leaders who haven’t fitted in with United Russia.”

Smart Money adds: “If it keeps speaking out against the nomenklatura and corruption, the new left-wing force will start attracting the attention of voters, as well as the attention of elites who dislike United Russia.”

Back in May, Mironov extended the Prosecutor General’s Office anti-corruption campaign by initiating the recall of several senators from the Federation Council. This affected the United Russia party as well; the Federation Council’s press service made a point of noting that three of the four dismissed senators were United Russia members.

However, according to Smart Money, “the real nightmare for United Russia would be if the RPL adds ‘a third term for Putin’ to its agenda.”

United Russia itself can’t nominate Putin, since the idea of a third term seems to have been conclusively rejected by the Kremlin; Putin doesn’t seem likely to follow the example of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who holds the dishonorable title of “the last dictator in Europe.”

Bakster Group analyst Dmitri Gusev told Smart Money that the “relevant left” could run an effective Duma campaign by using the slogan “Vote for a third term, vote for Putin, vote for the RPL.” Gusev notes: “Even if only 30% of the people support this idea, that would be enough to win.”

“Mironov has already spoken out against a third term, but that’s no problem,” says Smart Money. “The other two parties in the new alliance haven’t promised any such thing.”

In an article for Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Vladimir Inozemtsev, director of the Post-Industrial Society Studies Center, maintains that the “siloviki oligarchy” and the new bureaucracy – those who are behind the initiative groups calling for a third term – have some entirely understandable motives.

Putin “has done more than anyone else to redistribute public wealth in favor of the people referred to in a Soviet-era song as follows: ‘We don’t sow, we don’t plough, we don’t build – we just take pride in the social order.'”

Opinion polls indicate, says Inozemtsev, that voters “also have no burning desire to emerge from the pleasant state of oblivion induced by the torrent of petrodollars – even if most of it flows past them.”

Only the pro-democracy forces are discontented, “protesting against the Kremlin leadership’s authoritarian inclinations” – partly because they’re secretly hoping that Operation Successor will be a huge fiasco. But Inozemtsev doesn’t consider their position convincing: “An unbiased analysis of the trends shaping up in Russia’s economy and social sphere plainly indicates that some major ordeals await Russia after 2008.”

In Inozemtsev’s view, there’s a crisis of government building up in Russia – due to the practice of “negative selection,” which “elevates those who are the most loyal to the leader, while being the least competent.” Besides, federal budget spending is rising rapidly – and even though oil prices are high, even the current $75 per barrel may prove insufficient to “feed the army of bureaucrats” by 2009. Inozemtsev also predicts that “three or four years from now, it will become absolutely clear that the ‘national projects,’ along with other costly initiatives that do nothing to improve the lives of most citizens, are nothing but public relations exercises.” In foreign policy, there are concerns that “continuing the current foreign policy course will only lead to increased confrontation with the United States and Europe, while the prospects of an alliance with China will turn out to be less attractive than the authorities paint them now.”

All these outcomes will be direct consequences of Putin’s policies, says Inozemtsev, “but it’s very likely that the blame will be placed on whichever political kamikaze is chosen from the ranks of potential successors.” There are more than enough of them these days.

Then, in 2012, the hapless successor “will be replaced by Putin, making a comeback in the role of savior of the nation.”

Thus, says Inozemtsev, “Putin’s voluntary withdrawal from politics in 2008 and comeback in 2012 would be similar to the comebacks of de Gaulle in 1958 or Peron in 1973 – comebacks based on people’s fond memories of past successes. All this would make a change of policy course less likely, while creating more pretexts for a cult of personality, and the new Russia would have to forget about democracy for many years to come.”

And this, says Inozemtsev, is why the hopes of Russia’s opposition “may depend on a third term for Putin – since this offers the only chance to help votes make the connection between potential problems and the person who is truly to blame for them.”

Perhaps the Kremlin shares this point of view.

“Putin isn’t a security guard – he doesn’t guard other people’s property.” This, according to Smart Money, was the response of “Surkov-linked” political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky when asked about the need to get Putin to consent to a third term.