A third term for President Putin: counting the options

The Duma is considering the Chechen parliament’s proposal for abolishing the two-term limit. Another option for giving Vladimir Putin a third term might involve unification with Belarus or the Trans-Dniester region. The final decision is up to Putin himself.

Earlier this week, a bill submitted to the Duma by the parliament of Chechnya was considered by the Duma Council and sent on to factions and committees; they will give their opinions of the bill within a month, and by the start of November this issue could be considered by a Duma plenary session. But Vladimir Pligin, chairman of the constitutional law and state-building committee, has already stated that the Chechen parliament’s initiative has little chance of being supported. There’s one small problem: persuading Vladimir Putin himself to stay on for another term as president. But President Putin has stated repeatedly that he does not wish to amend the Russian Constitution.

The idea of prolonging the president’s powers is the most popular idea among Russia’s regional political elite. The regional political elite’s loyalist attitudes are not the only reason, or even the major reason, behind the idea of prolonging Putin’s period in office. After all, no matter what we think of the confidence ratings compiled by various polling agencies, the fact remains that Putin is still the one and only politician with an extremely high public confidence rating. Throughout his time in office, it has held steady at around 70%. Moreover, a recent poll done by the Levada Center shows a steep rise in support for a third term: 41% to 59% within the past nine months. Meanwhile, the ratings of the “official successors” – First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medevev, Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov – are only around 10%. The simple conclusion is that the successor problem is urgent.

As for Putin’s repeated statements about not wanting to tamper with the Constitution, turning it into an untouchable sacred cow, in practice it’s no such thing. Amendments to the Constitution have already been made, and will continue to be made, concerning Russia’s territorial-administrative boundaries. A process of expansion is under way; the names of regions are changing.

Since the Duma has already passed some constitutional laws, the Chechen parliament’s initiative could well be realized. Of course, the president could veto any of the Federal Assembly’s initiatives – but the legislative branch also has the right to override that.

The question of a third term for Putin could resolve itself if Russia forms a Union State with Belarus. However, officials prefer not to speak of that at present. Although it was announced at the end of 2005 that a Constitutional Act for the Union State would be signed soon, this has been postponed indefinitely for the time being. Integration processes between Russia and Belarus are developing actively within the Euro-Asian Economic Community framework.

Efforts to reach agreement on a Union State with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko aren’t working out – but Trans-Dniester’s wishes are clear. In the recent referendum, around 97% of residents of the Trans-Dniester Moldovan Republic essentially expressed support for reunification with Russia. “The referendum was democratic, meeting all European and civilized standards,” said Modest Kolerov, head of the presidential administration’s directorate for inter-regional and cultural contacts with foreign countries. Similar statements were made by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov.

Even these restrained comments by high-ranking Russian officials might be regarded as one option for amending the Russian Constitution in the part concerning an extension of President Putin’s period in office.

After all, the idea of using adjacent states for far-reaching political purposes is not new; the Kremlin considered it a couple of years ago in relation to the potential unification of Russia and Belarus. The essence of it is as follows: if a merger results in the formation of a new territory, the incumbent president’s period in office would be “reset to zero,” so to speak, and he would have the right to run for re-election. The Trans-Dniester referendum has produced an unambiguous answer: they want to join Russia. The next move is up to Moscow. The West would object to the annexation of Trans-Dniester, of course, but Russia could make a counter-argument: why are events moving towards approval for the break-up of Yugoslavia and international recognition for Kosovo? Is Trans-Dniester any less worthy? On these questions, even Russian politicians prefer to remain silent, wishing to avoid quarrels with the West.

All the same, whatever arguments might be made by proponents of prolonging the incumbent president’s powers, the question of whether Vladimir Putin will stay on in the Kremlin for another term ultimately depends on his own political will.