The most-talked about part of President Vladimir Putin’s recent nationally televised call-in program was his answer to a question concerning his plans after his second term ends in 2008. “I have said: even though I like my work, the Constitution does not allow me to run for office three times in a row,” Putin told the caller. “But even after I no longer have my presidential powers, I think that, without trying to shape the Constitution to fit my personal interests, I will be able to hold on to what is most important and most valuable to any politician: your trust. And, using this, we will be able to influence life in our country, to guarantee that it develops in a continuous manner so as to have an impact on what happens in Russia” (Kremlin.ru, October 25).
Putin later told reporters: “I did not say that I would name [my successor]. In any case, I am not yet ready for this. But certainly, I, like any citizen of Russia, reserve the right of choice upon voting and do not believe that I must limit my right to express my view in the media, either. The time will come, and I will speak about it.” Putin noted he had already indicated that his successor must be “a citizen of the Russian Federation, 35 years old or older, who has lived a certain number of years in Russia.” He also said: “I think that the people of the Russian Federation, the Russian citizenry in the widest sense of that word, must determine the strongest [candidate]” (RIA-Novosti, October 25).
While Putin’s latest comments about retaining “influence” were ambiguous, some observers have speculated about what he may have in mind. Dmitry Oreshkin, head of the Mercator consulting group, said it is clear Putin does not plan to “leave politics and take up business or lecturing at the FSB Academy” and that the only question is what post he will occupy after 2008 — perhaps prime minister or chairman of the Supreme Court. Oreshkin noted that Putin’s total departure from power would leave his entourage “defenseless” (Rosbalt, October 25).
Vyacheslav Nikonov, president of the Politika Foundation, noted that Putin reiterated during the call-in that a president cannot stay in office more than two terms in a row. “The words ‘in a row’ were not uttered by chance,” Nikonov wrote. “I do not rule out that Putin is not giving up the possibility of running for president following a certain interval. Relying on the reserve of trust he has accumulated, Putin will remain an influential figure after 2008. This means that, retaining his electoral resources, he will … try one way or another to influence Russian politics. The question that, of course, interests everyone, is how precisely he will do it.” Nikonov cited several examples, including that of Deng Xiaoping, who continued to wield paramount political influence in China after formally relinquishing his top positions, and that of Giulio Andreotti, who held the post of Italian prime minister seven times (Izvestiya, October 26).
However, Mikhail Remizov, president of the Institute of National Strategy, said Putin would not be able to retain influence after 2008. Contrasting Putin with Charles de Gaulle, who returned to power in France in 1958, Remizov wrote: “De Gaulle and other leaders like him were people who for many years consciously sought office, who had definite achievements behind them … de Gaulle created and successfully led the French Resistance. Nothing like this can be said about Putin. Not because he is bad or good, but simply because … he never was a politician in the true sense.” Thus, Putin’s relinquishing of the presidency in 2008 will mean his “political death,” Remizov wrote (Lentacom.ru, October 27).
Yet other observers suggested Putin could retain power precisely by entering public politics — or, at least, what passes for public politics in Russia. Sergei Markov, director of the Institute for Political Studies, told Ekho Moskvy radio that Putin will “maintain his political influence having become the leader of a certain coalition that will put forward its candidate for president.” He added that Putin will also become “the moral political leader of the parliamentary majority that will put forward its candidate for prime minister” and also “maintain influence for that pool of Russia mega-corporations that are now forming.” Like Nikonov, Markov concluded: “It is cannot be ruled out that Putin wants to return to the post of president in 2012.” Olga Kryshtanovskaya, head of the Center for the Study of the Elite at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said it was very possible Putin would become head of “one of the largest parties in the country” — an apparent reference to the pro-Kremlin United Russia party — which is likely to win the 2007 parliamentary elections and could name him prime minister (Ekho Moskvy, October 25). (It should be noted that a Kremlin-sponsored “opposition” party, Just Russia, officially came into being on October 28 as a result of a merger of the Party of Life, the Rodina party, and the Party of Pensioners.)
Just a few weeks before Putin’s call-in, the political scientist Andranik Migranyan, who heads the Public Chamber’s commission on overall national strategy, detailed how Putin could remain in power after 2008 without being president. Under Migranyan’s scenario, Putin would become head of United Russia, be named prime minister while remaining acting president during the three months leading up to new presidential elections, and would nominate “a member of his own team as the United Russia candidate for president — a person who is personally dependent on him and does not have his own political, financial, or information base.”
Even if the new president wanted “to be really independent and follow some other political and economic line,” Migranyan wrote, “it will be hard to realize it in four years: he will have to acquire his own political weight, gain control over parliament, over the party that brought him to power, and over the prime minister, his former ‘mentor and teacher’ (which in principle makes it unlikely or practically impossible for there to be a serious break in fundamental positions between the new president and Prime Minister Putin)” (Izvestiya, October 9).