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Russia: Will Putin Pursue Third Term, Or Will It Pursue Him?

Putin's Belarusian counterpart Alyaksandr Lukashenka (right) amended the constitution to fit his needs (epa) PRAGUE, June 14, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- In Russian politics, there is Vladimir Putin, and there is everybody else. The Russian leader, enjoying a robust 77-percent approval rating well into his second term, would likely have no serious rivals in the country's 2008 presidential elections. But the constitution, as it stands, forbids a third consecutive term in office.

Virtually from the moment Putin was inaugurated for his second term in office in May 2004, attention was already focused on whether a third term would follow.

In a country with a fondness for strong leadership, it was a reasonable question to ask.

But Putin, time and again, has appeared to dismiss the idea, citing the constitution's two-term presidential limit.

Still, the idea won't go away. In fact, it appears to be gaining strength.

Support For Third Term

A recent poll shows many Russians favor rewriting the constitution to allow Putin to seek a third term in 2008.

More than half the respondents in the survey by the Levada Center said they would react "very positively" or "somewhat positively" to an amendment clearing the way for a third Putin term. By contrast, just 29 percent disapproved of the idea.

Leonid of the Levada Center says support for the idea has grown since a similar poll was conducted in September 2005.

"According to the poll, conducted in May, 59 percent agreed with [allowing Putin a third term]. That figure last time was 44 percent," Sedov said.

Constitutional amendments require approval by both houses of parliament as well as the country's regional legislatures. Putin's presidency has witnessed the systematic purging of dissent from government ranks, and few doubt it would be difficult to push through the changes needed to secure a third term.

Questions About Democracy

It would be harder, however, to convince the West -- which is already concerned about democratic setbacks under Putin's reign -- that such a move is desirable or necessary.

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's controversial election to a disputed third term in March has left the West particularly unenthused about election-law revisions in the region.

Georgy Satarov, the head of the Moscow-based Indem Foundation think tank, suggests that countries with what he calls "a respect for legal principles" schedule similar constitutional amendments in a way that affects future presidents, not the incumbent.

But, he admits, a change in Article 81 of the Russian Constitution to allow more than two presidential terms in a row is "quite possible" while Putin is still in office: "You need a very simple change in the chapter dealing with the president. You need to take away the restriction allowing only two consecutive terms. Technically, this is even possible through a referendum, or other means."

It is unclear, however, if Putin would approve a Lukashenka-style constitutional referendum that would draw unwelcome criticism from the West.

Taking A Break

There are signs the Russian president may avoid the amendment option -- but not abandon the pursuit of political longevity. Boris Gryzlov, the speaker of the Kremlin-friendly State Duma, recently defended the integrity of the constitution.

"I don't think it is right to change the constitution for one particular person. There is a constitution that allows one person to remain president for two consecutive terms and not more than two consecutive terms," Gryzlov said. "As regards the incumbent president, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, in accordance with the constitution, he can be president for a third time, but not in a row."

That constitutional provision has raised speculation that Putin might enjoy a four-year break and then seek a new term in 2012.

Loyal Putin allies like First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov have both been named as potential successors -- a formula that would allow Putin to maintain de facto control of the country even while out of office.

Others have even suggested the president could, with the help of a friendly court system, step down several months before his current term ends -- and then run for what could technically could be called a nonconsecutive term in the 2008 elections.

RFE/RL Russia Report

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