Putin's Third Term To Feature In Duma Campaign
Now, Putin's rumored third term looks set to become the central issue of another key vote -- the ballot for the State Duma in December 2007.
Sergei Mironov -- the freshly reelected speaker of the Federation Council and the leader of the young pro-Kremlin party A Just Russia -- suggested in late March that the Russian Constitution be amended to extend the president's time in office from two to three consecutive terms.
He also proposed that the length of each term be increased to between five and seven years. "Four years is a very short term for Russia," he said. A third term for Putin, he added, "is the desire of millions of Russians and should be discussed publicly."
Mironov was among the first to advance the idea of a third presidential term, first raising the notion in 2001 and repeating it on an almost annual basis. After Putin's reelection in 2004, a handful of other federal and regional lawmakers began to back a third-term constitutional amendment as well.
Putin himself, however, has repeatedly rejected the notion, saying he is opposed in principle to altering the constitution on issues related to the presidential term of office.
Happy In His Job
Presidential protestations notwithstanding, Putin has often left room for ambiguity. He has noted several times that he "likes his job very much," leaving the impression that it is only the constitution, rigid and humorless, that is preventing him from having more fun.
In a February interview with Al-Jazeera television, Putin noted that it was not only the people of Russia who want him to stay, but also "several" unnamed Arab and European leaders.
Supporters and opponents alike appear to believe that Putin will nonetheless vacate his post after the 2008 election. So Mironov's proposal, so far, has met with a polite no-thanks from the presidential office. Many experts, additionally, say it is simply too late in the game to alter the constitution in time for the presidential vote.
But Mironov's proposal still has legs. It has raised a flurry of debate among Russia's media and political elite. And there are good reasons for that.
First, Mironov has suggested a specific mechanism for getting it done. Second, he has urged that the issue become a topic of national debate during the Duma election campaign. The council speaker says he has already begun to send letters to regional legislatures encouraging them to discuss the issue.
Third, his proposal reflects the intense battle currently under way between two key political factions. On the one side, there's the "third-term party" faction represented by Mironov and like-minded allies. On the other, there are third-term opponents who have rallied behind a potential Putin successor, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
By urging the third-term issue onto center stage, Mironov may be hoping to use the extraordinary popularity of the Russian president to catapult A Just Russia into a leading position in the December Duma elections. Putin's personal approval ratings currently stand at near 80 percent; a 2006 poll indicated 59 percent of Russians favored keeping the president in office for a third term.
How To Keep Putin In
In order to change the constitution, which currently limits the president to two consecutive four-year terms, two-thirds of the Duma and three-fourths of the Federation Council must approve the amendment -- as does two-thirds of the country's regional legislatures.
The legislative dominance of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party could easily ensure the amendment's approval, although party leader and Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov, among others, for now remains publicly opposed to the constitutional changes. But assuming the proposal gets full legislative support, the process of amending the constitution, Mironov says, can begin as late as November and be concluded long before the March 2008 presidential vote.
Yury Sharandin, the head of the Federation Council's Constitutional Law Committee, says an eleventh-hour amendment is legal and applicable to the forthcoming election as long as it is completed before the date of the election is officially codified.
While Russia's Central Election Commission has already announced the date of the presidential election as March 2, 2008, the council has yet to officially confirm the timing. Until it does, Sharandin said, there is time to initiate and adopt Mironov's proposed amendment. However, he added, it would be impossible to extend the length of the presidential term to five, six, or seven years in a way that would affect Putin. That change would only be applicable to subsequent presidents.
Ironically, amendment procedures can allow Putin to continue until the bitter end his public opposition to a third term. The Russian Constitution gives the president no veto power over proposed amendments.
Who's For And Who's Against?
Until now, the opponents of the "third-term party" have comprised Putin's most ardent followers, along with Unified Russia. Party leader Gryzlov has denounced Mironov's proposal as an "electoral PR trick." Vladimir Churov, the newly elected chairman of the Central Election Commission -- and a longtime Putin acquaintance -- told ""Kommersant"" on April 9 that a third term "looks impossible."
He added the enormous workload of the past eight years have "forced" Putin to think about leaving office. "I trust him as a man who means and does what he says," Churov said.
Gleb Pavlovsky, an adviser to Putin's chief of staff, Sergei Sobyanin, likewise told "Moskovsky komsomolets" that barring a major world conflict, Putin will not stay on for a third term. He scoffed, however, at the idea that Putin will leave politics altogether, saying -- without elaboration -- the president will assume the role of "father of the nation" and arbiter between the political elite upon his departure from the Kremlin.
There appear to be ranks within Unified Russia that support the idea of the third term. Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov noted there are no two-term limits for heads of government in Britain or Germany, or heads of state in France. "Why should we model ourselves on a dubious American democracy that has existed for only 250 years?" he asked.
The Duma's first deputy speaker, Lyubov Sliska -- an influential member of Unified Russia -- likewise backs Mironov's proposal. So do newly inaugurated Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, Deputy Justice Minister Vladimir Kolesnikov, and other federal and regional politicians from Unified Russia.
Writing on the "Yezhednevny zhurnal" website on April 9, political analyst Leonid Radzikhovsky said the current debate over the third term should be taken seriously as a logical extension of long-standing regimes in the Russian regions.
He cites, among others, Oryol Oblast Governor Yegor Stroyev, Tatar President Mintimer Shaimiyev, Bashkir President Murtaza Rakhimov, and the governors of Novgorod, Omsk, Samara, Sverdlovsk, Tomsk, Khabarovsk, Chelyabinsk, and Yaroslavl oblasts -- all of whom have been in power for at least 16 years.
"The unlimited term system of power has already been operational for a long time," Radzikhovsky said.
The Political Advantages Of Instability
"I personally would be reluctant to conclude that [Putin's] motives are bad," James Wolfensohn, then president of the World Bank, wrote in "The Wall Street Journal" in September 2004. "I think Russia is a pretty difficult place to run, and so I wouldn't come to that conclusion too quickly."
Putin's achievements have been largely bolstered by his staggeringly high personal popularity ratings -- especially in contrast to those of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin -- and a generally favorable global political and economic environment for Russia.
Unrest In The North Caucasus
The greatest challenge Putin has faced in his seven years at the helm has been controlling the situation in the North Caucasus and ending the vicious wave of terrorist attacks that swept through Russia in the decade ending in September 2004. Putin has been largely successful in this, as Russia has not seen a major terrorist incident since the Beslan school siege. Instead, Russian confidence in the future has been bolstered by such events as the July 2006 death of Chechen rebel commander Shamil Basayev.
Now, however, Russia enters a period fraught with danger for any personality-based political system -- elections and the transfer of power. Inasmuch as the Federal Assembly has been all but entirely subordinated to the Kremlin and is dominated by the Kremlin-controlled Unified Russia and A Just Russia parties, the December 2007 legislative elections are likely to pass smoothly. However, the race in the spring of 2008 to become Putin's successor is another matter entirely.
At present, the front-runners in the race are the two first deputy prime ministers, Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov. Medvedev -- who chairs the massive state-controlled gas giant Gazprom and who oversees the social portfolio in the government -- has a solid base from which to campaign, but is widely seen as handicapped by a notable lack of charisma. Ivanov, who definitely comes off more forcefully on television and who has a military background that lends him a tougher image, lacks the firm political and economic backing that Medvedev enjoys.
In recent months, Russian political analysts have agonized over the fact that the so-called siloviki -- the section of the political elite that is bound by ties to the intelligence and security structures and is widely believed to be centered around Putin's deputy chief of staff, Igor Sechin -- does not back either Medvedev or Ivanov. Increasingly, they are speculating the siloviki could play the role of spoiler as Putin attempts a managed power transition -- a role they fear could easily undermine the surprisingly fragile "vertical of power" that Putin has built so assiduously in the past few years.
Analyst Aleksandr Ryklin wrote on the "Yezhednevny zhurnal" website in December 2006 that the stress on the political structure could end in "the collapse of the entire system of power." Moscow Carnegie Center analyst Andrei Ryabov wrote in "Novaya gazeta" the following month that "the vertical of power is gradually on its way out under the influence of the group interests of ruling-class factions that are thinking primarily about their own survival after 2008."
It would not be hard to argue that the weakening of the vertical of power or even the collapse of the "entire system" created by Putin would not be a bad thing -- if not for the wild card of the siloviki, since the stability ushered in by Putin is a decided liability for their political fortunes. Although the allegations have never been conclusively demonstrated, it should not be forgotten that many observers have argued that the siloviki engineered their rise to prominence by provoking or exploiting violence in the North Caucasus in 1999 and -- perhaps -- by arranging a series of bombings in Russian apartment buildings that killed hundreds and paralyzed the country with terror.
Observers including Vitaly Leibin, Ivan Yartsev, and Natalya Royeva have all pointed to the recent high-profile murders of Central Bank Deputy Chairman Andrei Kozlov, investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and former Federal Security Service security agent Aleksandr Litvinenko as signs of the direction developments in Russia could take if a powerful section of the elite begins to see its political advantage in increased fear and instability.
Since Sechin and the siloviki do not seem to have placed their support behind any possible successor, speculation is mounting that their real goal is to compel Putin to accept a third term and thereby extend the status quo. An editorial in "Kommersant-Vlast" in January argued bluntly that Sechin's group could force Putin to remain in office by destabilizing the situation in the North Caucasus. Political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky, writing on kreml.org in January, argued the siloviki could be plotting a policy of "managed destabilization."
However, the institutional weakness of the Russian political system -- which remains heavily centered on Putin's personal popularity -- and the superficial nature of the imposed stability that has emerged in the North Caucasus in the last two years means that "managed" destabilization could quickly become unmanageable. And if it does, Russia and many in the international arena could find themselves relieved if Putin does agree to stay on for a few more years.
Ukraine Crisis Looms Large In Russia
Russian politicians have been eager to speak out about the mounting crisis, with the Duma issuing a statement on April 6 supporting the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada and denouncing Yushchenko's decision to dissolve parliament.
But a member of a Russian State Duma delegation visiting Ukraine, Duma Deputy Aleksandr Krutov, denied today that Russia was interfering in Ukrainian politics.
The Duma's statement "is not interference in [Ukraine's] internal affairs. It is an assessment of the Ukrainian president's decree," Krutov said. "Anybody, any organization, any country may give their assessment to any legal act in any country. The State Duma has given its own assessment and it is fully entitled to do so."
Events in Ukraine have provoked strong feelings among many Russians.
Russian television news programs have devoted hours of airtime to the current crisis in Ukraine. The escalating row has dominated the news and the front pages of most of the newspapers in Russia for several days.
Yevgeny Volk, the director of the Moscow branch of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, says Russia and Ukraine are bound together.
"The idea of Ukraine becoming a completely independent state is very hard for Russians to understand," Volk says.
"It always used to be that when something happened in Ukraine, we regarded it as something that was happening to us. We'd watch it with a great deal of attention. And of course the question of Ukraine joining the West, becoming a member of NATO or the European Union -- this is the worst imaginable nightmare for Russian public opinion."
Winter Of Orange
Three winters ago, when demonstrators wearing orange jackets took to the streets in Kyiv to contest fraudulent elections, they had the strong support of Washington and the European Union. The results of the election were overturned and the Western-leaning Yushchenko came to power in what became known as the Orange Revolution.
But three years later, there are signs that the West's support for Ukraine has waned.
Sam Greene, a political researcher at the Carnegie Moscow Center, says things look different now.
"Unfortunately, attention spans, particularly in Washington -- but I think not only in Washington -- I think are sometimes shorter than we would like them to be, and I think that interest has moved on. I think we saw similar dynamics probably in Georgia and probably in Kyrgyzstan," Greene says.
But has the void left by the Western governments that supported the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Rose Revolution in Georgia, and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan left an opportunity for Russia to regain influence in these former Soviet republics?
Greene says the issue is a little bit more complicated.
"The attention deficit from Washington's side may provide some opportunities to Moscow. They're more aware of an opportunity when it comes up and they might be able to take better advantage of it," Greene says.
"But in the long run, the real meat and bones of the relationship is something that is played out and fought over on a daily basis, not just in these moments of crisis and specific opportunity, but something that is part of trade negotiations and diplomacy and investment."
In recent years, Russia has taken steps to exert political influence in the region. At the beginning of 2006, an energy row between Moscow and Kyiv took on broader implications when Russia said it would no longer supply gas to Ukraine at reduced rates. Eventually, Ukraine was forced to accept the new terms. A few months later, Georgia agreed to pay market rates for Russian gas, too.
Greene says part of Russia's show of force is about saving face.
"The other thing they're sensitive to is image and prestige, partly for domestic reasons, partly for maintaining this international rhetoric that obviously makes them feel very good on some level," Greene says.
"They certainly would not want to see Ukraine join NATO or Georgia join NATO. They certainly would not want to see American antimissile systems and radar bases directly on the other side of the Russian border."
At the same time, he says, Moscow is coming to realize that the influence it used to wield over countries like Ukraine and Georgia is on the wane.
The decision makers in the Kremlin are under no illusion they can bring these countries into line -- now, he says, their primary concern is to do business with them.
Moscow Raises Profile At Gas Exporters' MeetingApril 9, 2007 -- Representatives of the world's leading natural-gas exporting states have opened a two-day meeting in Qatar to discuss ways to cooperate more closely.
Energy ministers from the Gas Exporting Countries Forum (GECF) countries have denied reports that discussions could include proposals to form a gas cartel similar to OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries).
"I hate the name 'cartel.' We are not a cartel," Qatari Oil Minister Abdullah al-Attiyah, who is also a former head of OPEC, said participating countries are at the meeting to "consider our interests."
But comments that emerged from Doha today suggested that not all its members regard it similarly.
Algerian Energy and Mines Minister Chakib Khelil told Reuters that "in the long term, we are moving towards a gas OPEC."
Shokri Ghanem, the head of Libya's energy sector, said the group is "trying to strengthen the cooperation among gas producers to avoid harmful competition."
Several participants noted that strengthening the GECF would take considerable time.
The GECF is a loose affiliation of 16 countries who control more than 70 percent of the world's gas reserves. Participants include Russia, Iran, Turkmenistan, Venezuela, Qatar, and Algeria. It was launched in Tehran in 1991.
Participants decided on the first day of the meeting to create a study group -- chaired by Russia, the world's leading gas exporter -- to explore ways to strengthen the GECP.
Russian President Vladimir Putin floated the idea of a gas cartel in 2002, before retreating under criticism from Western energy companies.
On February 1, Putin told an annual press conference that "we're already trying to coordinate our actions in the markets of third countries," adding that "we also intend to do it in future. He then softened his tone, saying Moscow supports "coordination" but not the "creation of some kind of cartel."
The Russian daily "Kommersant" reported on March 19 that an agreement on forming such a "cartel" was reached in mid-March and would be signed at this week's Doha meeting.
"We do not, and will not, set ourselves the goal of ganging up on anybody. It would be destructive and it would make no sense at all," Russian Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko was quoted as saying ahead of the meeting.
European Union leaders have reportedly begun considering ways to respond if the group were to seek coordination of gas output and control of prices.
Putin's Faith Raises Questions
The president has never disguised his Russian Orthodox beliefs, but are they becoming more conspicuous?
Since coming to power, the Russian president has not tried to conceal his Orthodox faith. But, according to some, he was not always religious.
Father Igor Vyzhanov, a spokesman for the department of external church relations at the Moscow Patriarchate, says Putin's views on religion have changed.
"I heard about a miracle with a small cross which he had experienced, and according to which he started believing," Vyzhanov says.
Aleksandr Verkhovsky, the director of the Sova Information and Analysis Center, which monitors religious discrimination in Russia, says the president is undoubtedly a fervent believer.
"Frankly speaking, I don't see any dynamics [indicating his faith is becoming more intense]. On the contrary, I think it is less than during the first two years of his presidency. Then, it was really noticeable," Verkhovsky says.
"But at some point I think he was forced, or he took the decision, to distance himself a little from the church leadership. Because everyone had the impression that he was a man interested in the church, and the church leadership hoped that this would mean they would have very close relations. But, in fact, no one intended to propose close relationships, because that was not something the government needed."
Separation Of Church And State
The Russian Constitution asserts that the church and the state must be entirely separate. Traditionally, Russia has had four official religions -- Russian Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. But there are fears that Putin's obvious Orthodox faith means he favors one religion over the others.
This week, the Russian government announced it would hand back land that was seized from the Russian Orthodox church after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.
Aleksei Malashenko, an expert in religious affairs at the Carnegie Moscow Center, says the Orthodox Church isn't likely to become Russia's only official religion.
"But at the same time, we have to recognize that the Russian Orthodox Church occupies a special position, and it has special relations with [the] state, and their ambitions are mostly political ambitions. They want to participate in the elaboration of the Russian way of development," Malashenko says.
A recent example of this was the decision made by schools in several regions of the country to introduce compulsory courses on Orthodox Christian culture.
In response, the Council of Muftis of Russia raised its concerns about the growing influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, and announced it would pressure the government to expand the instruction of Muslim culture beyond the Muslim republics in the North Caucasus to other regions with large Muslim communities.
Orthodox In Name
The Sova Center's Verkhovsky says there are two reasons the Russian Orthodox Church seems to have priority over other faiths in Russia.
"Firstly, it's connected to the traditions of the Russian statehood, which perceives itself, roughly speaking, as the heir to the Principality of Moscow and the Russian Empire, and not as an amalgam of the multicultured citizens that make up Russia today," Verkhovsky says.
"On the other hand, the Orthodox faith is, to some degree anyway, the religion of the majority of our citizens who called themselves Orthodox, even though they don't entirely know what this means. Some don't even believe in God, but they call themselves Orthodox Christians, and so the church indirectly speaks for them."
But Father Yakov Krotov, a religious commentator, is more skeptical. He believes the government and the president give preferentiality to the Orthodox Church over other faiths.
"Putin has shown he is a believer, an Orthodox Christian, but when it comes to politics, he is a politician. That's to say that he doesn't support the Orthodox Church as a whole, he supports those Orthodox believers who were brought up by the Kremlin nomenclature over the past 60 years," Krotov says.
"He doesn't even support the Orthodox faith in particular, he supports those aspects that are part of the religious elite. That's to say he suppresses one group of Muslims, and supports another, he suppresses one group of Jews and supports another. It's an old Soviet trick: selection. It's a similar thing to what Hitler did."
But Father Vyzhanov doesn't see anything as sinister in Putin's faith: "As for the fact that the president goes to church at Easter, I think this is his personal matter, too. For example, when the president of the United States shows his religiosity, or points out to his church his confession, no one sees any problem in this. The presidents are human beings, too."
There has been speculation that Putin's recent trip to the Vatican, to meet Pope Benedict XVI, might pave the way for an unprecedented meeting between the leaders of the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic faiths -- an indication, Vyzhanov says, that Putin welcomes and supports all denominations.
The president's press service says it will not disclose Putin's plans for Easter Sunday, but it is likely he will mark the occasion -- as he has for many years -- by attending the service at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in central Moscow.