Is Vladimir Putin being haunted by the ghosts of August 1998?
A growing number of Russia-watchers certainly seem to think so, and are pointing to this as the reason behind the rushed effort to extend the president's term from four to six years
Here's former Duma deputy -- and current opposition figure -- Vladimir Ryzhkov
, writing in "The Moscow Times" on November 14:"Putin well remembers the 1998 crisis, when the Kremlin's authority collapsed over the course of several weeks and Boris Yeltsin's team only miraculously managed to hold on to power. He also remembers how quickly a deep schism among the ruling elite can occur. Against the backdrop of the crisis 10 years ago, a powerful political bloc, Fatherland-All Russia, was formed by former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, [Moscow] Mayor Yury Luzhkov and Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiyev, and it immediately mounted a fierce attack against the Kremlin. Putin constantly strives to maintain a strategic advantage by guessing what might happen next and keeping all the cards in his own hands."
Political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin
picks up on the same meme in a November 17 commentary:"Putin must act now before it is too late. In only six months, a rival group could be formed as an alternative to his siloviki to take advantage of the public discontent and power vacuum caused by the crisis. If this group becomes powerful enough, it could even rally around Medvedev and convince him to dismiss the prime minister based on the government's failures in handling the crisis. This threat may seem farfetched, but Putin cannot completely dismiss it."
It is fast becoming conventional wisdom among the Moscow punditocracy that President Dmitry Medvedev's term-extension proposal, first announced in his November 5 state-of-the-nation speech, is a vehicle to get Putin back in the Kremlin as fast as possible -- perhaps as early as next year.
But are these machinations part of a panicked improvisation made necessary by the financial crisis and its potential political fallout as Ryzhkov and Oreshkin suggest?
Or was this the plan all along? On November 6, the day after Medvedev dropped his bombshell, the daily "Vedomosti
" wrote that the plan was actually hatched before Putin turned the keys to the Kremlin over to his loyal protégé.
"This was not Medvedev's improvisation. The plan was hatched when Vladimir Putin was still in power and its architect was First Deputy Kremlin Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov, according to Kremlin officials. The plan to extend the president's term was formed in 2007 under Putin's direction. According to a source close to the presidential administration, a successor would be elected who would enact the necessary constitutional changes and unpopular reforms so that Putin could return to the Kremlin for a longer term."
According to sources cited by "Vedomosti," Medvedev could resign once the constitutional changes are enacted and elections could be held next year. Putin could then serve two terms and stay in power until 2021.
This, conveniently, would allow Putin to fulfill the "Strategy-2020" plan for Russia's economic and political development. That plan is due to be enacted at the ruling Unified Russia party congress on November 20, where Putin is scheduled to speak.
-- Brian Whitmore