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.
Analysts have suggested the party might remove the limit of two consecutive terms or strengthen the powers of the prime minister, though others say that with Putin's informal influence here, he doesn't need either step to continue dominating politics.
Putin told the party congress he was averse to constitutional changes, particularly for the benefit of one man.
The president, who is required to step down in March after two consecutive terms, has long indicated he would remain a major influence in Russian politics. As prime minister, backed by an unassailable United Russia majority in the next parliament, he could challenge even a president who chose to exercise the considerable powers of that office.
Under the Russian system, the president nominates the prime minister, but the final decision rests with parliament. In 1998, an assertive parliament forced a weak President Boris Yeltsin to nominate Yevgeny Primakov, a former foreign minister, for the job despite Yeltsin's interest in other candidates.
Such a scenario is unlikely to repeat itself because Putin will also play the key role in selecting the new president. His power and popularity are such that whoever he says he is backing will handily win the presidential election in March, analysts here say. The chosen loyalist would then respect Putin's wishes and exercise constitutional prerogatives gingerly.
Becoming prime minister, Putin said Monday, "requires at least two conditions." First, United Russia must win the Dec. 2 parliamentary elections; and second, the new president must be a "decent, effective and modern person." Both conditions are easily met.
Last month, Putin surprised the country's elite by picking the relatively unknown Viktor Zubkov, a longtime associate, as the country's new prime minister. The choice led to speculation that Zubkov would go on to become a quiet president, holding the office until 2012, when Putin could legally return to it, because his third term would not be consecutive.
Speaking Monday of the next president, Putin told delegates that "with him we could work as a pair."
"This means, first of all, that Putin will use the party as one of the main instruments for continuing his policies," said Sergei Markov, a political analyst and Kremlin loyalist who joined United Russia last week and is now on the party's list for the December election. "Putin will be prime minister or Putin will control the prime minister. The new president will also be nominated by a United Russia party congress and will be responsible to Vladimir Putin."
In an interview, Markov described that scenario as a "healthy redistribution of power" that would reenergize the dormant legislative branch.
But critics of the president said the scenario didn't presage the emergence of a system of checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches and merely confirmed Putin's role as the nation's puppet master.
"Today the president made his choice how to stay. . . . He gets the majority in the State Duma, the premier moves to the Kremlin, and things remain as they are," Mikhail Kasyanov, former prime minister under Putin and now an opposition figure, said on Echo Moskvy radio. "It means that the current political course, which in my view is leading our country to collapse, will continue."
Staff writer Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this report.