Anyone who thought the suspense over Russia's tense and long-anticipated transition of power was over when Dmitry Medvedev moved into the Kremlin six months ago should think again.
Medvedev sent tremors through official Moscow on November 11 when he proposed legislation extending the presidential term of office from four to six years. The proposal, first floated in Medvedev's state-of-the-nation address
on November 5, would not affect his current term as president, which expires in 2012. It would also require amending Russia's constitution.
The move has sparked widespread speculation that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin -- Medvedev's mentor and predecessor who most analysts see as Russia's true ruler -- was planning to return to the presidency.
Citing unidentified Kremlin sources, the daily newspaper "Vedomosti" reported on November 6 that the changes were drafted in 2007, when Putin was still president.
"This was not Medvedev's improvisation, the reform was thought up under Vladimir Putin" the daily wrote, identifying first deputy Kremlin chief of staff Vladislav Surkov as the plan's author. "He facilitated the election of a successor who would carry out the necessary constitutional changes and unpopular social reforms so that Putin could return to the Kremlin for a longer term."
Medvedev has also proposed extending the terms of members of the State Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament, from four to five years.Finding A Scapegoat
The proposed changes come at a time when the global financial crisis and falling oil prices are undermining the relative prosperity that has been a key source of both Putin and Medvedev's popularity and legitimacy.
The financial crisis has caused the Russian stock markets and currency to tumble, igniting fears of unemployment and general economic insecurity. Some media reports have also suggested that it has shaken up Russia's political elite considerably, causing a rift between Medvedev and Putin -- or at least between their respective teams.
The trend in Russia during economics crises has traditionally been to scapegoat the prime minister, fire the government, and allow the president to appear as the "Good Tsar," taking care of the nation's needs.
But while that formula may have been an option in the past -- as when President Boris Yeltsin dismissed Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko following Russia's 1998 financial crisis -- firing Putin, the country's most powerful and popular figure, is not exactly an option.
In recent weeks, media seen as sympathetic to Medvedev have become increasingly critical of Putin.
"If the people whose job it is to deal with economic problems are not really coping with work in the new conditions of mounting crisis, is there a need to seek new managers?" the popular online newspaper gazeta.ru opined in an editorial posted on October 7.
The next day, the website published an editorial encouraging Medvedev to "distance himself somewhat from the prime minister" and his policies.
And on October 23, the daily "Vremya novostei" went even further, challenging the entire political course Putin has followed since coming to power in 2000 -- from the seizure of the Yukos oil company and arrest of its CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, to the stifling of the media, to the destruction of independent political parties.
"The return of legal party politics, normal national television, and a radical change in the atmosphere in the country would support the financial system almost more than lavish injections from the treasury," the daily wrote.
Medvedev's recent actions, however, suggest that he has chosen not to take that advice.