By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 28, 2008
MOSCOW -- Not so long ago, a relatively young, newly elected president of Russia was presented with a proposal to amend the nation's constitution and extend the four-year term of the presidency.
His response was unequivocal. "The terms of presidential authority will not be changed under the current president," Vladimir Putin said in 2001, his second year in office, arguing that amendments to the constitution "dictated by political considerations" were dangerous. "Even in the most difficult times and times of crisis," he said, "those in power did not succumb to the temptation to correct the constitution for themselves. In the end, this was for the good." Putin repeated the pledge on the eve of his second term, saying the constitution should be left "untouched."
Now, months after leaving office and becoming prime minister, Putin is helping another relatively young, newly elected Russian president do exactly what he promised never to do himself -- rewrite the constitution to extend the presidential term. The abrupt reversal has sparked speculation in Moscow about whether Putin is preparing to take back his old job as president, and why.
Three weeks after President Dmitry Medvedev raised the issue in his first state of the nation address, lawmakers are rushing to approve the first substantive amendments to Russia's post-Soviet constitution since its adoption in 1993. The proposal would extend the presidential term to six years and that of members of the Duma, the lower house of parliament, from four years to five. A separate measure would give the Duma greater oversight over the prime minister.
Given Russia's increasingly autocratic political system, there is little doubt the amendments will pass. There is also little doubt that Putin, who picked Medvedev to succeed him and remains the dominant figure in the Kremlin, is behind the plan.
In making the proposal, Medvedev said longer terms are needed to ensure that the president and members of the Duma "have enough time to put their promises into practice" between elections. Putin also endorsed the change, saying it was part of "a package to improve the structure of government."
But because the six-year term would go into effect after the next presidential vote, scheduled for 2012, many analysts contend that Putin is laying the groundwork for an early election and a return to the presidency, as soon as next year. They speculate that Medvedev could use the constitutional change as a reason to resign, triggering a special election that Putin would easily win.
Putin stepped down as president in May because the constitution barred him from seeking a third consecutive term. But nothing in the constitution prohibits a return to the presidency after an interregnum.
Appointed prime minister by Medvedev, he is still seen at home and abroad as Russia's top leader. But analysts say that there are advantages to holding the presidency and that Putin may be engineering an early return as a way to remain in power during difficult times ahead.
After presiding over nearly a decade of rapid growth, Putin now confronts the prospect of a severe economic slowdown. The stock markets are down 70 percent from their May highs, oil has fallen to $50 a barrel, and the government is struggling to defend the ruble and is spending its huge foreign-currency reserves faster than expected. As the crisis spreads to the rest of the economy, many expect public discontent to climb with unemployment and inflation.
"He knows how serious it is, and he's not sure that he will survive three more years without damaging . . . his chances of being elected again," said Nikolai Petrov, a scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "From that perspective, it makes sense to have the election sooner, and it's more attractive to have a guarantee of six years."
He added that Putin would be better positioned to ride out the crisis as president because management of the economy has traditionally been seen as the responsibility of the prime minister. Putin could take credit for the government's successes while blaming problems on his prime minister, as he has done in the past, Petrov said.
Putin has not ruled out another term as president. Asked at a Nov. 12 news conference with the visiting Finnish president whether he planned to return to the presidency, he said the constitutional amendment had "no personal dimension."
"As far as I know, the president of Finland is elected for six years. From this point of view, there is nothing unusual in what Mr. Medvedev has proposed," Putin said. "As for who could run for the next term, and when, it is too early to speak of this," he added, leading pundits to wonder whether he had inadvertently confirmed that the 2012 election could be moved up.
Medvedev, too, has avoided a categorical denial. Asked in an interview with the French newspaper Figaro whether he might leave office early, he replied: "I am in the process of working right now. Why are you pushing me into certain decisions?"
Both the Russian Communist Party and the fractured democratic opposition have been vocal in condemning the proposed changes to the constitution. If Putin serves two additional six-year terms, on top of the eight years he just finished, he would become the longest-serving leader of Russia since Joseph Stalin.
The Kremlin has moved unusually quickly on the amendments. The measures sailed through three votes in the Duma less than two weeks after Medvedev proposed them, and the parliament's upper house, the Federation Council, passed them Wednesday. The required approval of two-thirds of Russia's regional legislatures could be completed by year's end.
"It's a disgrace to pass a constitutional amendment at such a pace," said Kiril Rogov, a political analyst at the Institute for the Economy in Transition who wrote a column in July 2007 predicting Putin would return as president after a brief stint as prime minister. "The urgency means Putin is nervous. He's unsure how the economic situation will develop."
In addition, he noted, the global financial crisis has shifted international attention away from Russia's war with Georgia, making it easier for Medvedev to develop relationships with other world leaders. As the new president gains international respect, his clout at home will grow as well, Rogov said, adding, "It's another reason Putin wants to hurry."
There has been little hint of friction between Putin and Medvedev, a former aide. But analysts say the presence of two senior leaders at the top of Russia's centralized political system can be destabilizing, no matter how well they work together.
Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister now in the opposition, said the political landscape has already begun to shift. Putin remains on top, but Medvedev has amassed more influence than all other second-tier figures in the Kremlin, he said.
In a sign of political uncertainty, two powerful regional leaders recently made statements unusually critical of Kremlin policy. One of them, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, called for reviving the system of direct elections of local governors that Putin abolished. Medvedev abruptly rejected the idea the next day.
Nikolai Svanidze, a journalist who was given special access to Medvedev and recently published a collection of his interviews with him, said he was doubtful the new president was planning to step down and make way for a Putin comeback. "Medvedev may have a low profile, but he's not a little boy," Svanidze said. "He doesn't leave the impression of a man who just follows orders."
Analysts say Putin often prepares several options and makes a decision at the last minute, a management style that keeps people guessing. He may be considering a return to the presidency, but the amendment strengthening the powers of the Duma suggests he could also be thinking about becoming chairman of the parliament, a position that would also allow him to exercise power while avoiding blame for the economic crisis.
Svanidze said even top government officials are uncertain of Putin's plans. "People are very nervous," he said. "They're nervous because they don't know what to do about the economic crisis and because they don't know who's going to be sitting in the Kremlin."