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Putin Lays Groundwork for a Possible Third Term

(Washington, D.C. - August 4, 2006) Two prominent experts on Russia discussed with an RFE/RL audience the likelihood that President Vladimir Putin might serve a third consecutive term as president -- a scenario which might require changes to the country's constitution. Peter Reddaway, an Emeritus Professor of Political Science & International Affairs at George Washington University and a member of its Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, and Donald Jensen, RFE/RL's Director of Communications, both agreed Russia is "not a democracy" and that under "ever greater authoritarianism," or prompted by a domestic crisis, Putin might seek to prolong his time in office.

Reddaway observed that the "most plausible scenario" is for Putin to "opt for early elections" both to the Duma and for the presidency, because Putin would want to "act before he becomes a lame duck" so that he is in a position "to exert maximum control over the succession process," By acting early, while economic and political conditions remain favorable, Putin will have less trouble promoting his own candidate and will catch international observers, as well as "what is left of the opposition" off-guard. The "element of surprise can be very valuable in an authoritarian system," Reddaway said.

In the most complicated scenario, which bears striking resemblance to Putin's own succession in 1999, Reddaway outlined the mechanics behind engineering both early Duma elections and early presidential elections. In this scenario, Putin would dismiss the incumbent prime minister Mikhail Fradkov over something trivial, such as rising gasoline prices, and appoint his chosen candidate, currently considered to be Dmitry Medvedev, as prime minister, Reddaway said. Then the Duma would reject Medvedev's nomination, enabling Putin to dissolve the Duma and call for new parliamentary elections. At the same time, Putin would resign and Medvedev would become both acting president and prime minister -- just as Putin did in 1999 after Yeltsin's resignation. Thus, Putin's preferred candidate, in effect, would be given a "head start" for the upcoming presidential election, with the entire "state apparatus behind him," Reddaway said.

According to Reddaway, Putin's succession in 1999 was viewed a "surprise" by many observers, because they did not note the "signs" of impending change. In 1999, he admits the "volume of evidence" pointing towards early elections was "small," while today it "is a little larger than in 1999."

In reviewing the way in which Russia "is ruled" today, Jensen said that the system shares "significant continuities with the Yeltsin era," in that "money and power are closely interrelated" and "are not separated by the rule of law." The president acts as an arbiter that "maintains and balances the demands" of a divided elite, who pursue self-interest by selecting a successor able to "maintain the status-quo," according to Jensen. National elections simply serve to "validate the elite's selection," Jensen said.

Due to a fractious elite, weak rule of law, and the Russian governance system's patrimonial character, Jensen concluded the system is "highly fragile" and "fundamentally unstable... especially as succession approaches." The system "remains in balance" and is allowed to function due to the "passivity of the population." If in-fighting among the ruling elites were to reach such a level that the population's passivity was to end, the system could easily be subject to "an abrupt change," Jensen said.

Archived audio of Don Jensen's presentation can be heard in RealAudio and Windows Media formats; archived audio of Peter Reddaway's presentation can also be heard in RealAudio and Windows Media formats.