None too coy, Acting President Vladimir Putin told his campaign team that he would like to see the presidential term increased from four to seven years. The constitutional change could not be made in the three weeks remaining before the March 26 elections, but the idea should be “put before the country’s population” before the elections of 2004. Putin also took the occasion to say that making governors appointees would be “a step backwards.”

Perhaps by design, Putin’s remarks looked moderate and democratic by comparison with a radical plan by three regional governors to curb the franchise and blur the lines between executive and legislative power. The governors–from Novgorod, Belgorod, and Kurgan–say they want to give Russia a “presidential democratic republic with a strong vertical of executive power.” The anatomy of that strange beast includes a president elected to a seven-year term not by the people but by parliament, the prime minister and the “power ministries” (the ministries of defense and interior plus the security service). The president in turn would appoint the regional leaders–governors, republic presidents and big-city mayors. Konstantin Titov, governor of Samara and a presidential candidate, denounced the plan as a “liquidation of Russia’s democratic achievements” and “the reanimation of the former USSR.”

The desire to broker elections in advance and avoid bringing a real contest to the public runs strong among the political elite. That has helped the pro-Putin Unity party to become in just three months the “party of power” that Boris Yeltsin failed over seven years to construct. The upcoming May gubernatorial election in St. Petersburg is a case in point.

Incumbent Vladimir Yakovlev is both disliked by the Kremlin and vulnerable. Former Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, now a member of liberal Yabloko party, hinted at a run, and several political blocs–Yabloko, the “Democratic Russia” group that still has strength in St. Petersburg, and the Union of Right-wing Forces–all signaled their support. At the end of last week, however, the Kremlin weighed in. The Unity party urged the deputy prime minister for social affairs, Valentina Matvienko, to enter the race. In short order Stepashin backed out and announced his support for Matvienko. Then former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, the leaders of the Fatherland movement, also came out for Matvienko. That is a line-up that will ensure Matvienko, should she run, the support of virtually all of the media and the state apparatus. Even an incumbent will be at a distinct disadvantage.