Could be interesting (if by “interesting” you mean “one of the worst things that could possibly happen to Europe, and not too hot for Russia either”):
“Mr Putin, so the theory goes, would not stand again when his second four-year term expires next March. To do so would require changing the constitution, which limits presidents to two consecutive terms, and could look undemocratic.
“Instead, say analysts, business people and journalists, Mr Putin could come back in 2012, as the constitution allows. Or the next president could stand down early because of â€œill healthâ€. Another scenario is that the constitution could be changed early in the next presidency to allow longer presidential terms (an idea already being discussed), triggering elections in which Mr Putin returns.”
Of course, quite what the problem is of changing a constitution that’s only been around a few years I can’t really see. Plus “looking undemocratic” is hardly something Putin or Russia as a whole seems to have cared much about in recent years.
This little theory of old Vlad going for another term also goes some way to explaining quite why he’s been so active in recent months. Let’s face it, most outgoing leaders do very little of any import in their last year in office – cf. the second half of the second term of pretty much any post-war US president, Tony Blair’s utter failure to achieve anything in recent months and decision to bugger off out of the country for his final few weeks in office, etc. etc. – but Putin seems to have been more visible and made more major pronouncements in the last couple of months than he has in the preceding couple of years. It’s not the behaviour of a man resigned to giving up power in less than a year’s time.
Certainly the possibility of Putin going for a third term could go some way towards explaining his recent belligerent rhetoric towards Europe and America. Being so utterly vast in territory, Russia has always needed enemies to hold itself together. With so many borders, she has always managed to find them: the various Slavic enemies of the warring Rus’ tribes, the Mongol and Islamic incursions, the gradual expansion and consolidation of Muscovy, Ivan the Terrible’s numerous wars, the conquest of Siberia and creation of the vast Russian Empire, then Revolution, Civil War and Cold War, followed by an uneasy truce with the rest of the world that’s lasted – so far – for a little over fifteen years. A fifteen year period which has seen numerous wars in Chechnya, yet remains probably the most peaceful and secure decade and a half that Russia’s seen for centuries.
Nothing creates unity better than standing up to a foreign threat – the Chechens were used quite effectively in the last few elections, but have rather run their course. With parliamentary elections only a few months away and the presidential one in less than a year, if you buy into the “Russian ruling elite” theory, some kind of major unifying force is needed – and Putin seems to have hit on conflict with the West as the key.
Meanwhile, of course, Putin’s opponents are already mobilising – Boris Berezovsky’s billions funding dissident groups, while high-profile opposition types have already begun declaring their candidacies. Will blind loyalty to the current government really be enough for whoever Putin’s successor may finally turn out to be when there are big names waiting in the wings to try and shift the country’s direction?
And in any case, if not President Putin, then who else from the “ruling elite”? No heir is apparent, no hints have been made. It may not mean a great deal in a country where Putin rose from nowhere to the presidency (via heading the security services and being Prime Minister) in a matter of months, but Yeltsin spent years hunting for a suitable successor – selecting then rejecting at least half a dozen before picking Vlad. Putin himself seems to have done nothing of the kind.
Only one thing is certain – as much as Putin may appear dodgy to outsiders, in Russia itself he remains hugely popular, with approval ratings currently around the 80% mark. His anti-Western rhetoric is increasing that popularity even further – Cold War resentments die hard, it would seem (hell, we’re all just as bad – how many Westerners still secretly think of Russia as the Soviet Union?).
If Putin wants another term, therefore, Russia will gladly give it to him. Why worry about a constitution on which the ink is barely dry when that constitution is preventing the people from electing the man they want as their leader?
So, another four or so years of Europe being held to ransom by Russian energy companies. Another four years of suspect human rights records and clampdowns on civil liberties. Another four years of persecution of political opponents and hostile members of the press. Anther four years of Cold War style macho posturing against the West. Another four years of Russia not really moving on from its less than glorious past.
But still, what the people want, the people should get, right? That’s the beauty of democracy. If democracy elects tyrants, then so be it. And it’s not as if we can do anything about it anyway – change in Russia has always come from within. Such a short time after the end of the Cold War, little wonder that they don’t yet seem to have worked out precisely what that change should be.