Over the last few weeks, President Vladimir Putin’s has elevated long-time associate Viktor Zubkov as prime minister, “accepted” the pro-Kremlin United Russia party’s “invitation” to head its list of candidates for the upcoming State Duma elections, and strongly hinted he may become prime minister (Putin said becoming prime minister was “entirely realistic” but that it was still “too early to think about it”). In the wake of these moves, a consensus seems to be emerging that Putin will remain “in power” after his second and final constitutionally authorized presidential term ends next March. Exactly how he will hold on to power remains an open question.
There are several schools of thought in this regard. One is that following United Russia’s all-but inevitable landslide victory in the State Duma elections this coming December, the parliamentary majority will pick Putin to be prime minister and he will resign the presidency, leaving Zubkov as acting president. However, given Zubkov’s lack of an independent power base — and perhaps with changes in Russia’s political system, either de facto or de jure — power will shift from the presidency to the office of prime minister. So even if Zubkov runs for president and wins, this version goes, he will hold a post whose power has been diminished.
The political scientist Andranik Migranyan put forward a similar scenario in Izvestiya last October, according to which 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)” (EDM, October 30, 2006).
According to another school of thought, Zubkov will essentially serve as a seat-warmer for Putin, who will come back as president in 2012, the year of the next scheduled presidential election, or perhaps even sooner, if the aging Zubkov resigns for “health reasons.” The Russian constitution forbids a president to serve more than two terms “in succession,” and Putin himself notably included those two words when, during a national televised call in program last October, he reiterated that he would not violate the constitution by remaining in power for a third consecutive term (EDM, October 30, 2006). Speaking to Western journalists and academics earlier this month, Putin said he did not he did not rule out standing for president again in 2012 or 2016 (BBC, September 15).
In recent days, however, a number of commentators have suggested that Putin would be making a huge strategic blunder were he to follow any of these scenarios. Essentially, they raised the following question: what if Zubkov, despite his age, putative lack of ambition and longtime close association with Putin, finds he enjoys the essentially monarchical powers of Russia’s presidency and decides he does not want either to cede them over to Prime Minister Putin or to step down and hand back the presidential reins to Putin?
As Yulia Latynina wrote: “Putin has constructed his vertical power structure to ensure that enormous power is concentrated in one man — the president. Whoever happens to sit in that chair will automatically undergo a transformation, not unlike a Hobbit who finds the Great Ring of Power. Once he puts the ring on his finger, he will never want to let it go” (Moscow Times, October 3). As Anton Orekh wrote in a commentary for the Yezhednevny Zhurnal web magazine entitled “Big Mistake”: “A surprise awaits him [Putin]. Because a person who has received supreme power will not, at any price, agree to be a formal figure … Power is capable of changing a person beyond recognition. We ourselves have confronted this in our lives a thousand times!” (Ej.ru, October 2). What is more, the Kremlin’s copious “administrative resources,” including the three main television channels, plus the passage of time, could turn even a relatively uncharismatic president into a popular leader and his predecessor into yesterday’s man.
On the other hand, what if Putin’s hints about possibly becoming prime minister or running for president again in 2012 or 2016 were deliberately misleading? What if he in fact has every intention of assuming the presidency again next year, after a very short interval out of office?
It could happen as follows: in the aftermath of United Russia’s victory in December’s State Duma elections (its margin of victory made all the larger by Putin’s name at the top of their ticket), Putin resigns as president and is named United Russia’s presidential candidate for the next presidential elections — which, according to Russia’s constitution, are to be held “no later than three months after the early termination of the President’s powers.” Zubkov would then become acting president, but would serve in that capacity for no longer than three months – hardly enough time for him to consolidate power (were he inclined to do so). Putin then runs for president and wins by a landslide – and does so without violating the constitutional prohibition on a president serving two terms “in succession.”
Not only would Putin be “clean” in terms of not having violated the letter of Russia’s constitution, but he would be the first Russian head of state to have been elected as the candidate of a political party – something that the Kremlin’s spin doctors would no doubt point to as yet another stage in the maturation of Russia’s “sovereign democracy.”