When Russian President Vladimir Putin is asked about his plans for the future, he replies that he will operate according to the constitution. The constitution of the Russian Federation specifically states that the president is allowed to serve for two consecutive four-year terms. Therefore, according to the constitution, Putin's second term will end in less than three years - in 2008. But although over two and a half years remain until the end of his term, the hot topic nowadays in Russia is what Putin really intends to do. The discussion of this question is preoccupying not only politicians, businessmen, reporters and commentators in Russia, but rank and file citizens as well. The subject is accompanying the president on his journeys abroad and will also come up, although not in official talks, during his visit to Israel, which began last night.
The only statement by Putin that deviated from his usual mantra was made about three weeks ago, during his visit to the city of Hanover, Germany. During a meeting with senior executives of the German media, he said: "I will not change the constitution, and according to the constitution you cannot run for the presidency three consecutive times." But he added an interesting comment about the fact that the constitution does not prevent him from offering his candidacy again at a later stage. However, he said: "The truth is that I'm not sure if I want to."
Putin's words are providing a fertile field for guesses, estimates, rumors and conspiracy theories. What they all have in common is the feeling that behind the simple explanation hides a deeper meaning. Putin and his associates - who are nicknamed "the tribe" - will not easily surrender power, and therefore it is reasonable to assume that they will find, or at least look for, a way to bypass the limitations of the constitution and make sure they remain at the helm.
Most commentators believe that Putin and his associates, who are running the country from the Kremlin, will not change the article in the constitution that sets two terms for the president. But some people believe that other articles in the constitution will be changed, thus turning Russia from a presidential republic into a parliamentary republic. At present, in Russia, as in the United States and in France, power is concentrated in the executive, with the presidency at the center. If Russia turns into a country in which power is concentrated in the cabinet, Putin and his associates will be able to carry out the following step: De jure, the head of the country will continue to be the president, but he will be a ceremonial president without powers, as in Israel. Therefore, the constitution will ostensibly be preserved, but Putin will be the prime minister. In theory he will be subordinate to the president, and de facto he will continue to be the strong man in the country.
But this possibility still requires a change in the constitution, and therefore there are commentators who believe that in order to maintain his credibility and his commitment not to touch the constitution, Putin will choose another way. This was the assessment of commentator Olga Kryshtanovskaya, an expert on the country's elites. In her opinion, "the tribe" will formulate a plan in which Russia will continue to be a presidential republic, and Putin will be appointed prime minister, without any changes to the constitution. In such a case, "the tribe" will appoint a puppet candidate, who will run in the coming elections, whereas the focus of power will in effect be in the hands of prime minister Putin, the modern czar of Russia.
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