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Putin opens door to becoming Russia's next prime minister

President Vladimir Putin
President Vladimir Putin

MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin, in a surprise announcement, opened the door Monday to becoming Russia's prime minister and retaining power when his presidential term ends next year.

Putin is barred from seeking a third consecutive term in the March presidential election but has strongly indicated he would seek to keep a hand on Russia's reins after he steps down.

Putin's remarks Monday at a congress of the dominant, Kremlin-controlled United Russia party hint at a clear scenario in which he could remake himself as a powerful prime minister and eclipse a weakened president.

Putin, 54, said that his name will top its ticket in Dec. 2 parliamentary elections — a huge show of support from a president who has always sought to remain above the grit of party politics.

He called a proposal that he become prime minister "entirely realistic," but added that it was still "too early to think about it." For him to consider it, he said, first United Russia would have to win the elections and Russia elect as president a "decent, competent, effective, modern person with whom it would be possible to work in tandem."

Putin's name on the ticket will make the first task much easier. Laden with top officials who can use the media, law enforcement and other levers to pressure opponents and influence voting, the party already has a huge advantage. And Putin's powerful support could ensure it retains the two-thirds majority needed in the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, to approve changes in the constitution.

Putin's move points to the possibility that the constitution could be changed to shift power from the presidency to the government, which he would lead as prime minister.

"The most logical way for Putin's team to fulfill its main goal — to step down but stay in power — is to change the constitution" to strengthen the prime minister and his Cabinet, political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin said in an interview. "The president would become a decorative figure."

Former chess champion Garry Kasparov, a fierce Putin critic chosen by his opposition alliance this weekend to run against the Kremlin-backed presidential candidate in March, said Putin's move displayed "the antidemocratic and anti-constitutional nature of this whole electoral process."

"In fact, Putin has done nothing more than decide to use United Russia as the main mechanism for retaining power," Kasparov told Ekho Moskvy radio.

While transferring power from the president to the prime minister would on the surface suggest a major change in the political system, the chief editor of Ekho Moskvy radio said it would make little difference in reality, comparing Putin's power to that of the czars or the Soviet-era Communist Party chiefs.

"In Russia — as before — a regime of personal power has been established: The power of one person, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, and whether he is called president or prime minister ... is meaningless," Alexei Venediktov said.

He said the power could be effectively shifted to the prime minister without touching the constitution, by changing a law to transfer power over the Defense Ministry and law enforcement from president to premier.

And even if the constitution is not changed, Putin as premier with United Russia behind him could wield more clout with Russia's people and its army of bureaucrats than a new president.

Part of the attraction of being prime minister instead of president, Oreshkin pointed out, is that there are no term limits on the premier. And the prime minister replaces the president if he dies or is incapacitated.

Oreshkin said Putin could yet have other plans up his sleeve, but that his decision to lead United Russia into the elections ensured that he will not become a lame duck ahead of the presidential vote. "He showed everyone that all the strings are still in his hands," Oreshkin said.

Putin said Monday he would not actually join United Russia, and leading the party's candidate list does not oblige him to take a seat in parliament; prominent politicians and other figures often are given the top spots to attract votes, but stay out of the legislature after elections. There is no direct voting for individual candidates; the 450 Duma seats will be distributed proportionately among parties that receive at least 7 percent of the vote.

Putin has amassed authority as president, but as he prepares to step down, he has been setting up a system of checks and balances that would weaken his successor by putting him at the mercy of rival centers of power — a strategy, possibly, of divide and rule. By leading the United Russia ticket, Kremlin-connected political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky said, Putin instantaneously creates the strongest such rival power — with himself as its head.

The move means Putin's successor "will not be a czar," Pavlovsky said on Ekho Moskvy. "There will be a new center of influence outside the Kremlin."

If he is plotting to remain in power, Putin laid some major groundwork last month with another stunning step — the nomination of an obscure ally known primarily for his loyalty, Viktor Zubkov, as prime minister in a shake-up that had not been expected until after the December vote.

With no power base of his own, Zubkov would likely play his preordained part in any Putin plan. If he were to become president and Putin prime minister, Zubkov could be expected to cede as much power as demanded to Putin or step down to allow him to return to the presidency. Other top officials cast as potential successors, with stronger connections to rival factions in the political elite, might be less likely to bend to Putin's will.