Putin signals power hold

The Baltimore Sun

MOSCOW -- Russian President Vladimir V. Putin suggested yesterday that he might retain political influence when he steps down next year, as required under the constitution, by serving as prime minister.

Putin agreed yesterday to head the United Russia party's list of candidates in a December parliamentary election, lending his popularity to the dominant party's efforts to win a commanding majority of seats.

Russia has a system under which seats are awarded proportionally to parties depending on the percentage of votes they win, with individuals higher on party lists having priority to become lawmakers.

Under Russia's constitution, the president nominates the prime minister, who is confirmed by parliament and oversees many of the day-to-day affairs of government.

Greater constitutional power lies with the president than with the prime minister. But were Putin to serve as prime minister under a weak president who won office through Putin's patronage, it is possible that his popularity and personal connections could make him more influential in that post than the new president. It is also possible that the constitution could be changed to shift some powers from the president to the prime minister.

"Heading the government is realistic, but it is too early to consider it," Putin said at a United Russia party congress.

While Putin has the right to run for parliament while continuing to serve as president, it appeared that, under Russian law, should he wish to take a parliamentary seat in December he would need to resign the presidency. Because some prominent candidates decline to take their seats in parliament, the scenario would seem to indicate that he agreed to head United Russia's list as a means to boost its support, rather than with the intention of entering parliament.

"It is against the constitution to combine the state presidency with being a legislator," said Sergei Pashin, professor of law at the Moscow Institute of Economy, Politics and Law. "If President Putin wishes to become a parliamentary deputy once the United Russia party makes it into the lower chamber, he can step down as president and become a legislator. But it really beats me why he may need that."

Putin consistently enjoys popularity ratings above 70 percent. But the constitution bans anyone from serving more than two consecutive presidential terms, and Putin's second term will end in the spring. Most observers believe that Russian voters, heavily influenced by state-controlled television, will endorse whomever Putin selects as his preferred successor as president.

Among the contenders seen as most likely to win the nod are current Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov or First Deputy Prime Ministers Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei B. Ivanov.

Putin repeatedly has indicated that he intends to maintain strong political influence after departing the presidency, and many observers have suggested that he might achieve that by moving over to the prime minister's post or by heading United Russia. He has said that he might seek re-election after another president holds the office, which the Russian constitution would allow. But yesterday's comments appeared to be the first time that Putin publicly expressed interest in moving from the presidency to the premiership.

Stanislav Belkovsky, president of the National Strategy Institute, a Moscow think tank, said it is also conceivable that Putin could give up the presidency without completing his second term.

"Putin may have chosen to lead the United Russia ballot in order to soon have a legitimate pretext to step down as president and for instance make Prime Minister Zubkov acting president," Belkovsky said. "That would technically allow Putin to run for a third term because formally his second term would not be regarded as completed."

Sergei L. Loiko and David Holley write for the Los Angeles Times.

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