Putin Suggests He'd Be Premier

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 2, 2007

MOSCOW, Oct. 1 -- President Vladimir Putin on Monday gave the clearest indication yet that he intends to continue ruling Russia after his term expires next spring, possibly by becoming prime minister, an office that analysts here say he could make as powerful as the presidency.

To be prime minister "is quite a realistic proposal," Putin told delegates at the electoral congress of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, which dominates parliament. He added that "it's too early to think about that," but Putin is not given to idle hypotheses, particularly in such a setting.

Political analysts and jubilant party delegates pounced on the remarks as an unofficial declaration of Putin's intention to leave the Kremlin next spring and move quickly up the winding Moscow River to Russia's White House, where the prime minister works.

"The president will keep his constitutional authority, but the real levers of power will shift to the prime minister's office," Alexei Makarkin, deputy head of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow, said in an interview. "Political practice, not any constitutional changes, will allow him to continue to dominate."

Putin's typically coy and charged remarks came as he agreed to head the United Russia ticket in parliamentary elections in December, a decision that will guarantee him a seat in parliament if he wants it. Candidates named on Russian party lists do not necessarily take seats in the State Duma, or lower house of parliament. The seats can be passed on to other figures further down the list.

The announcement, which surprised the delegates, was carefully choreographed. United Russia had left one of the three top spots on the party list vacant, fueling speculation that First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, a potential presidential candidate, might fill it to boost his public image.

Party member Sergei Borisov, speaking at the congress, pleaded with Putin to "lead the party." Putin is not officially a member of United Russia or any other party, on grounds that the president should be above politics.

"So long as the state is outside a party, our party system is bulky and, to be honest, a somewhat decorative institution with little influence," Borisov said. "I believe that by participating in one of the parties, you, Vladimir Putin, would make a large contribution to a stronger democracy and a multiparty system."

"I thankfully accept your proposal that I should head the United Russia ticket," Putin said. People in the packed hall jumped to their feet and erupted in applause.

In Washington, the State Department cautioned that the United States is concerned about whether all parties and individuals will have equal opportunity to participate in politics.

"To the extent that he's doing this in the context of the laws of Russia, then certainly that's his choice and his party's choice," State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters. "We'd certainly like to see elections take place there in a way that provides opportunity for all legitimate political parties to campaign openly and freely."

United Russia dominates the State Duma. By heading its ticket, Putin could help the party maintain its dominance in the next parliament and possibly secure a two-thirds majority, which until now seemed unachievable. That would allow United Russia to change the constitution at will.

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