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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Annals of Putin's Plan

Writing for Radio Free Europe, the brilliant Robert Coalson explains the possible details of Putin's plan to remain in power forever:

Reports that Vladimir Putin has prepared a statement to be broadcast to the nation on November 29 have fueled speculation that the message might contain an answer to the "2008 question" -- the president's resignation. Virtually no details about the Russian leader's prerecorded address have been released, but it is a safe bet that it will focus on the December 2 Duma elections and that he plans to do more than merely urge voters to come to the polls.

Telling is that news of Putin's television statement came as the Federation Council was in the midst of adopting a resolution setting the date of the next presidential election for March 2. That resolution was adopted on November 26, setting into motion a timetable for the presidential transition. By law, the resolution becomes official when it is published in the government newspaper "Rossiiskaya gazeta," which is obligated to do so within five days, or by December 1, but may do so earlier. After that follows a strict schedule of nominations, publications of candidate platforms, and campaigning.

The Federation Council was not obligated to adopt the measure this week; in fact, it convened in an extraordinary session to do so, indicating that the timing of the action to the Duma elections was part of the presidential administration's managed transition process. Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov speculated in the run-up to the November 26 session that Putin could run in the March election if he resigns as president before the council's resolution is officially published. Mironov cited Article 3, Section 5 of the election law, which states that a citizen who holds the office of president of the Russian Federation for a second consecutive term on the day of the official publication of the date of the election cannot be elected president. In other words, Mironov argues, if Putin is not holding the office of president of the Russian Federation on the day the council's resolution is published, he would be eligible to run for another term, which would be considered nonconsecutive.

Interim President

Speculation that Putin would resign and then run for another term as president, handing over the office temporarily to a trusted loyalist for the interim, has dominated the Russian political scene at least since the appointment of Viktor Zubkov as prime minister in September. Zubkov has been widely seen as the most likely "interim president." Such a scenario, it has been argued, would comply with Putin's oft-stated opposition to changing the constitution to allow him to remain in office, although whether it also meets with his asserted intention to obey both the letter and the spirit of the law is open to debate.

Aleksandr Shokhin, president of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, told the newsweekly "Itogi" this month that Putin could use such a loophole to remain in office "Nominating Vladimir Putin as a candidate for president in the 2008 election is perfectly possible," Shokhin said. "And you don't need to change the constitution. The first step is resigning as president because it is incompatible with the mandate of a Duma deputy, which he will get from the [Duma] elections. Unlike 1999, when [President Boris] Yeltsin resigned in favor of a 'successor,' here the resignation would occur in accordance with the law, which does not allow those two posts [president and Duma deputy] to be held by one person.

"The second step," Shokhin continued, "is that the party would nominate its new leader in the Duma, Vladimir Putin, as a candidate for president. This can be done because the next elections have already been scheduled --I emphasize -- they are scheduled elections, not connected with the early resignation of the president."

During the Federation Council session on November 26, Central Election Commission Chairman Vladimir Churov stated that, in his opinion, Putin would not be eligible to run in the March elections under any circumstances. "Under the law, a person holding this post, in the event of resignation, could not participate in this election," Churov said, although he did not cite the law that he had in mind. Mironov challenged Churov, pointing out as Shokhin did that the elections are already scheduled and would not be extraordinary elections triggered by the president's resignation. In response, Churov changed his reasoning, saying that Putin would not run because he has said publicly many times that he will not seek a third term.

Resign, Reapply

Resignation on November 29 could be the simplest solution to the so-called 2008 question. In his statement, Putin could reasonably note that opposition parties, especially the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS), have complained that he is using his office as president to influence the Duma elections unfairly. Recently, the Supreme Court rejected an SPS complaint urging the court to disqualify Putin from the Duma elections on precisely this ground. Putin would now be in a position to appear even more democratically minded than the high court, claiming to be stepping aside to avoid any conflict of interest and to devote himself to this historic step in Russia's democratic transition.

Such a speech would fit the Kremlin's pattern of taking self-serving steps -- from taking over NTV to nationalizing Yukos to eliminating the direct election of governors -- under the cover of some superficially legitimate pretext. Interestingly, "Kommersant" reported on November 26 that Putin recorded the statement that will be broadcast on November 29 at the Ostankino television broadcasting center instead of at the Kremlin, from where all of his previous television broadcasts have originated. This small gesture could also indicate that his resignation is in the air -- symbolically shedding the trappings of the Kremlin and becoming an ordinary citizen, merely a candidate for the Duma.

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