Putin, Long Taciturn About His Future, Has Put Scenarios in Play, Analysts Say

Some of the speculation about President Vladimir Putin's future will abate this month when he endorses a candidate to succeed him, thus revealing clues to his own intentions.
Some of the speculation about President Vladimir Putin's future will abate this month when he endorses a candidate to succeed him, thus revealing clues to his own intentions. (By Dmitry Astakhov -- Presidential Press Service Via Ria-novosti And Associated Press)

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By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 9, 2007

MOSCOW -- On Friday, parts of the Russian media speculated that Vladimir Putin would become the first president of a new Russia-Belarus union state.

The evidence: Putin will meet this week with Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, and a long-discussed but never realized merger of the two countries could be part of the conversation.

"Speculative fantasies," the Kremlin snapped.

Musing on the plans of the Russian president is Moscow's longest-running and most excruciating parlor game. Long before Friday's offering, Putin's post-presidential incarnation has been linked to just about every major position in Russian political life -- not to mention chairmanship of energy giant Gazprom and presidency of the International Olympic Committee.

But some of the political astrology is about to abate, because this month the studiously coy Putin must begin to lay his cards on the table. The schedule for the March 2 presidential election requires that candidates nominating themselves must declare by Dec. 18 and that candidates nominated by a registered political party must be announced by Dec. 23.

Putin's endorsement this month -- under the constitution, he cannot seek a third consecutive term -- will reveal his intentions for his own future, but it will still not fully divulge his next move. The president has put several scenarios into play, some of which could unfold even after a successor is elected, according to analysts.

Indeed, uncertainty has become one of the president's key political levers.

Putin's ultimate goal, according to analysts, is not only to ensure the continuity of his policies but also to pick a successor who will maintain peace among the increasingly nervous Kremlin factions that surround him. That would allow a calm transfer of power or an uneventful interregnum until Putin returned, as many here believe he will.

Last Sunday's elections, which the United Russia party swept with a large turnout, "were extremely important for him, to control the people in the Kremlin who have started quarreling," Mark Urnov, head of the Expertise Foundation, a Moscow research institute that provides political analysis, said in an interview. "His choice will determine the structure of power and relations within the Kremlin, where there is no consensus on the future."

By demonstrating his popular support, Putin avoids a lame-duck tag and can use his ongoing clout to squash emerging internecine battles, analysts said.

Two recent criminal cases raise concerns that Putin's departure could unleash destabilizing infighting among the security services that dominate the elite.

One of the cases -- which began with the October arrest of Gen. Alexander Bulbov of the Federal Narcotics Control Center by agents of the FSB, the domestic successor to the KGB -- exposed rivalries fueled by business interests.

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