Despite legal limit, Russia weighs 3rd term for Putin

To run, he would need change in constitution

September 12, 2005|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - The governor of Russia's Novgorod region, northwest of Moscow, cites a bit of American history when talking about Russia's future leadership, a subject that has come to mean the debate on whether to allow President Vladimir V. Putin to seek election to a third term.

"There was a time in the United States when Mr. Roosevelt was elected four times," said Gov. Mikhail Prusak, noting that Franklin D. Roosevelt led the country out of the dark days of the Depression. "I admire Americans for what they have done for stability and prosperity."

But in talking about Putin, Prusak chose to ignore the fact that Russia's constitution does not allow for more than two consecutive presidential terms.

Constitutions can be changed, as many of Putin's supporters point out with increasing confidence. Their calls for an amendment that would permit him to remain in office beyond the end of his second term in 2008 are becoming more frequent. After trying to minimize speculation about his intentions, Putin fueled the rumors last month after being asked whether he intended to run again.

"Perhaps I might want to," he answered during a stop in Helsinki, Finland, "but the constitution does not allow it."

Many Russians interpreted his remark as a calculated hint of his desire to remain in office and as a shrewd effort to size up public sentiment. And within days, compliant lawmakers proposed a series of measures that would allow him to stay.

Adam Imadaev, a member of a regional parliament in Russia's Far East, proposed scrapping presidential term limits. Leonid Markelov, president of an independent Russian republic west of the Urals, proposed allowing presidents to serve at least three five- to seven-year terms. Igor Rimmer, a deputy in St. Petersburg's legislative assembly, more modestly suggested allowing a third four-year term.

"The problem is that Russia is in a transitional period now, and it would be wrong to try to change the `vertical of power,' " said Rimmer, referring to the tradition of centralized authority. "What Russia needs most of all now is stability. Putin - he personifies stability."

Putin has likewise in the past pointed to stability as the reason he won't seek a third term: Only by observing the constitution, he has said, can national stability be assured.

Putin, as the country's little-known prime minister, became acting president when the ailing President Boris N. Yeltsin abruptly announced his resignation in December 1999. Three months later, Putin won a presidential election. Last year, he easily won a second four-year term, thanks in part to the favorable coverage by the mostly state-controlled TV networks.

While high oil prices have allowed Putin to claim a measure of economic success, he has failed to end a brutal war in Chechnya; the Kremlin also bungled a reduction in pensioners' benefits, bringing thousands of protesters into the streets of Moscow this year.

There are several scenarios that would allow Putin to remain in power beyond 2008, yet still be true to his word that he won't serve a third term.

He could support a close ally in the next presidential election, a figure who might then allow him to run the country from behind the scenes. Or Putin could serve as prime minister after orchestrating an executive branch reform to make that post more powerful. Or he could campaign to become president of a proposed new state resulting from the union of Russia and neighboring Belarus.

"There is not a single one that is risk-free," Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, said of the possible courses of action, "and I don't think there is a single one that would keep the legitimacy of the institution."

Putin's supporters make this argument: Ensuring democracy in the long term requires stepping beyond its boundaries now.

Putin hasn't had sufficient time, their argument goes, to carry out reforms. Nor, his supporters say, does Russia have the stable institutions to support the democratic principles enshrined in the constitution.

"I am very much afraid that our patriots will elect a new president and we'll have a pro-[nationalist] leader, which will mean a totalitarian regime in this country," said Prusak, the governor of Novgorod. "That is why I said I would very much like Putin to stay for a third term - so that he could strengthen democracy."

Critics say that Putin isn't a Western-style democrat and that attempts to keep him in power should be seen as the forward march of authoritarianism by a Kremlin determined to tighten its grip on every part of Russian society. The so-called siloviki - the network of Kremlin appointees with ties to the military and KGB - will thereby bolster their own influence.

"I think President Putin will secure a third term simply because this is the authorities' logic," Yuliya Latynina, a political commentator and radio-show host, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta last month. "Power in Russia is in essence authoritarian, and there are no other ways to hand over power."

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