Russia watchers are back to playing their favorite parlor game this summer -- trying to guess Putin’s intentions after his second term as president expires in 2008.
The speculation is not new. But it got a boost earlier this month, during the Russian president’s visit to Finland. Putin was asked whether he would like to run for a third term. Unlike on previous occasions, he did not reject the possibility out of hand.
"Maybe I would like that, but our country's constitution does not allow it," Putin said. "I think the most important thing for us in Russia today is stability, which can only be achieved on the basis of the existing law."
A few days later, a legislator from Russia’s Primorskii Krai territory suggested that regional lawmakers draft a bill amending the constitution to allow Putin to seek a third term. A new wave of political gossip was launched.
The fact that three years before his term is due to expire, Russia is already obsessing about whether Putin will stay on or leave after 2008 says a lot about the Russian political system.
Masha Lipman, a well-known Moscow journalist and political commentator, told RFE/RL "there is no issue that is more important in Russian politics today."
With Russia’s regional leaders now directly appointed by the Kremlin and top businessmen beholden to the state for patronage, nearly everyone with money and power in Russia depends on Moscow’s favors. As Lipman noted, how to confront the "2008 problem" is a big concern.
"This is a really, really hard question -- a hard challenge for the Russian ruling elite," Lipman said. "The thing is that, over the time of Putin's tenure, power and property have become so closely entangled that to yield power, to lose power, for the ruling elite would mean to lose much more than their positions, actually."
Lipman listed some of the most "popular" potential scenarios making the rounds in Moscow.
"Whatever happens in 2008, what cannot and should not be expected -- at this point, at least -- is free, unimpeded political competition for the Russian presidency," Lipman said. "Various scenarios are being discussed. One of them is a change in the constitution, which would make it legitimate for Putin to run a third time. Another may be unification with Belarus, with the need for a new constitution for this unified state or a redistribution of authority in favor of the parliament."
According to current laws, amending Article 81 of the constitution to allow Putin to run for a third term would be quite complicated. It would require support from two-thirds of the lower house of parliament, the Duma; three-fourths of the upper house, the Federation Council; and two-thirds of the country’s 89 regional legislatures.
Given that pro-Kremlin deputies control two-thirds of the seats in the Duma and nearly all the seats in the Federation Council, the Kremlin could get its way relatively easily. Lobbying regional legislatures might be harder, but not impossible.
Another easier option - if it is allowed by the courts -- would be to go the so-called "Central Asian route" and hold a popular referendum to extend the president’s term.
The other scenarios -- creating a new state with Belarus, or vesting most executive power in the prime minister, to allow Putin to assume that post after the presidency -- are all seen as possible options by most experts.
Stephan de Spiegeleire, a Russia analyst at the Clingendael Center for Strategic Studies in The Hague, said the method picked by the Kremlin does not really matter. If Putin is determined to stay in office, he has many options. The real question is whether he himself knows what he wants.
"Legal technicalities are not going to impede the current president, Putin, from extending his stay in office, if he so wants," De Spiegeleire said. "But I personally am not yet convinced that that's really what he wants."
It may not all be up to Putin, as Lipman noted.
"The Kremlin is notorious for being torn by inner strife with various factions that are pursuing their own interests and the interests of their various clients," Lipman said.
It’s likely no such consensus has been reached yet. That could explain Putin’s ambiguous stance on the issue.
But if a decision is made to push for a third Putin term, de Spiegeleire said, one thing is certain: Russia can expect a public-relations campaign in the media and vocal support from regional leaders.
Until then, it’s a betting person’s game.