After all, Putin completely dominates the political stage, and he could have easily initiated and passed any changes to the constitution needed for him to run for another term as president. His oft-repeated assertions that he respects the letter and the spirit of the current constitution ring hollow, given Kremlin policies like the restriction of opposition political parties, strictures on civil society, suppression of nonstate media, subordination of the judicial system, and abolition of the direct election of regional administration heads.
Even most foreign observers -- while noting the unfair nature of the Duma elections and the myriad ways the Kremlin misused its power against weak political opponents -- have never really doubted the outright victory of the pro-Putin forces.
That victory was never in doubt because Putin is genuinely popular, for a mixture of objective and subjective reasons. Because of the vast revenues Russia accrues due to high global energy prices, the standard of living for many Russians is improving markedly -- and most of them attribute that prosperity to Putin personally. Putin has also hijacked populist policies from both the right and left ends of the spectrum. Borrowing from the left, he has increased pensions and state aid programs. From the right, Putin adopted the policy of a sharp reduction of business taxes and a low, flat-rate income tax for individuals. Finally, Putin's efforts to restore Russia's standing as a power in the international arena is enormously popular among Russians, many of whom remain bitter about the economic hardships and foreign-policy weakness of the 1990s. The yearning for a restoration of Russia's prestige is expressed throughout society, in areas as diverse as sports and the arts. This feeling has saturated the atmosphere because of the Kremlin's skillful manipulation.
A career intelligence officer, Putin has taken considerable pains to conceal his plans. It has become commonplace to say that Russian policy under Putin has become a series of "special operations." This secrecy is simply a part of the mindset of Putin and the siloviki -- people associated with the security organs and the military -- who surround him.
Until mid-December, there was evidence that Putin was having trouble choosing a successor for when his current term expires in March 2008. His anointing of First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev does not necessarily make things simpler. Many believed the successor should come from among the siloviki who form Putin's inner circle, or at least be acceptable to them. It is unclear how Medvedev, who does not come from the ranks of the siloviki, will hold up. Moreover, because these siloviki are divided among themselves, it's unclear there is even such a thing as a candidate acceptable to all factions -- one who will be recognized as the supreme commander by the entire military and security community. Putin must also keep in mind that Russia is the world's second most powerful nuclear power and Medvedev, if he remains the successor of choice, must be an acceptable and predictable partner for the international community, particularly the United States.
Some clues about Putin's intentions can be found in an 800-page manifesto issued last summer by a group of about 70 pro-Putin, national-patriotic academics under the title "Russian Doctrine." The book is presented as a set of "guidelines" for the next administration and a kind of national, supra-party platform. It contains detailed foreign- and domestic-policy proposals, including autocratic reforms to the military, national-security system, the economy, the mass media, education, and culture.
Moreover, it was approved at the September World Congress of Russian People, an annual event sponsored by the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church. Metropolitan Kirill, who handles foreign relations for the Moscow Patriarchate and is one of the leading ideologues of the Putin regime, took pains to praise it.
The "Russian Doctrine" presumes that the Russian Federation is doomed to extinction because it will be unable to cope with the looming challenges of international competition. Within the next decade, the authors claim, Russia will increasingly begin to lag behind China, India, the United States, and some Southeast Asian countries. In response, the authors propose a new state structure based on the traditions of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Interestingly, they propose doing so without dissolving the Russian Federation: that is, they urge the creation of a "parallel state" initially operating unseen behind the facade of the current one. It would consist of a system of political and economic institutions accessible only to Putin and the siloviki that the authors call "the invisible, networked Russia."
However, on closer inspection, the model described in "Russian Doctrine" resembles neither tsarist Russia nor the Soviet Union so much as it does the sociopolitical structures of Germany, Italy, Spain, and Portugal in the 1930s.
It isn't hard to find examples of the sort of parallel institutions the authors describe in the policies enacted during Putin's two terms as president. In 2005, he created the Public Chamber, a pseudo-public, estate-based organ similar to ones that existed in parallel to the legislatures of the countries mentioned above. More importantly, the Kremlin has been actively creating state megacorporations in key sectors of the economy, including energy, nuclear power, aviation, shipbuilding, and nanotechnology. The number of these new entities has mushroomed in the last few years, most of them being headed by siloviki from Putin's inner circle.
In December, the finishing touches were put on Rostekhnologia, a conglomerate based on the arms-export monopoly Rosoboroneksport and including virtually all weapons producers and traders, as well as machine-building firms and the giant carmaker AvtoVAZ. Rostekhnologia is headed by Sergei Chemezov, a KGB colleague from Putin's days in Dresden, East Germany. The doctrine of a corporate state also has its roots in the political climate of 1930s Europe.
In addition, during the Duma campaign, Kremlin-inspired activists energetically promoted the idea of Putin as "national leader" after he leaves the presidency. Analysts have speculated that Putin could play a role in Russia similar to that played by former South African President Nelson Mandela or former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping after their retirement. But in combination with the emerging corporate state, a national leader would seem more like Italy's Il Duce, Benito Mussolini, or Spain's Caudillo, Francisco Franco. Russian ideologists have been compelled to adopt the English-based word "lider" since the Russian "vozhd" is strongly associated with Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin.
Using its hegemony over Russian culture and information, the Kremlin has been able to infuse the national consciousness with the idea of a renewed imperial state. Maksim Kalashnikov, one of the authors of the "Russian Doctrine" project and a leading proponent of new-empire thinking, has written that nothing better reflects the aspirations of a national elite than a country's science fiction books. "Today most of our science fiction is revanchist, imperial literature in which Russians are redeeming their shame [from the 1990s] and building up a new superpower," he wrote.
The phenomenon has not escaped the attention of Russia's neighbors. The Ukrainian website glavred.ua wrote recently that there are two Russias -- a proto-imperial Russia inside the country and a regular country from the outside. Igor Panarin, a Russian expert on information wars and a proponent of the new imperialism, told the website: "Inside the country, in the virtual world, such an empire is, indeed, being created. This is very good and it is to the credit of the current president. The next goal is to expand this public relations campaign beyond Russia's borders."
In 2006, neo-imperialist author Mikhail Yuriev published a science fiction utopia called "The Third Empire," in which the action is set in 2053. In Yuriev's vision, the world then will be covered by five super states -- India, China, the American Federation (comprising North and South America), an Islamic caliphate, and the Russian Empire. The latter includes all of Russia and the former Soviet republics and also sweeps all the way across Western Europe and even encompasses Greenland. In the text, Yuriev describes how Russia conquered Europe and Turkey in a series of "expansionist wars."
Although Yuriev's vision is fantastic, it is not completely divorced from reality. In early 2007, the Economic Development and Trade Ministry published a report on Russia's economic development through 2020. The report contained an optimistic, a neutral, and a pessimistic forecast. Under the optimistic forecast, Russia would emerge as one of the world's 10 most-developed countries by the end of the period. However, according to press reports, Putin ordered the neutral and pessimistic scenarios removed and made the optimistic scenario even rosier. Under Putin's vision, by 2020 Russia will be among the world's top five most-developed countries, on a par with the United States, China, India, and Japan. In short, Russia would be the most advanced country in Europe, state television commented recently.
If Putin is indeed following a plan along the lines of the "Russian Doctrine," then perhaps some of his next moves can be anticipated as he leaves office and focuses on the creation of a new political infrastructure and networks. The new president, a handpicked loyalist, might undertake a large-scale purge of the 1990s elite from the state apparatus, the mass media, and other positions of power. The "Russian Doctrine" identifies this as a top priority.
Speaking to RFE/RL on December 1, liberal economist Andrei Illarionov mentioned his concern that the new president might launch mass repressions, including some that touch the security apparatus. The new president might also be called upon to implement other reforms that are expected to meet with resistance at home and abroad, including the possible reform of the territorial-administrative divisions of the Russian Federation. Regional Development Minister Dmitry Kozak has already drawn up a plan to divide the country up into several "macroeconomic regions." Kozak told reporters last week that the plan covers the period through 2020 and "will be a leap forward in the development of various territories."
Then, after this dirty work has been done, a new draft constitution, based on "conservative values," can be introduced. Under it a new schedule of elections will be laid out and Putin can return to the Kremlin in glory, the father of a new country.
But to implement this plan, Putin needs to be sure that he has more legitimacy than his successor. That's why he turned the Duma elections into a personal referendum. Taken together, Unified Russia and A Just Russia pulled in more than 70 percent of the vote. Since the president elected in March will be unlikely to get much more than 50 percent of the vote, Putin will have an important "legitimacy edge." With Medvedev's call for Putin to step in as a future prime minister, the plan would appear to be well under way.