Talk in Russia has once again drifted to extending President Vladimir Putin's term in office. Such talk hints at the truth of just how arranged the Russian political system now is.
Russian Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov proposed March 30 that instead of Russia's president serving a four-year term, the term should be extended to "five, or maybe seven" years. He also proposed doing away with the current constitutional prohibition of more than two terms. The Kremlin quickly restated President Vladimir Putin's position that the constitution should not be amended and that Putin has no desire to extend his stay in office past the expiration of his term in March 2008. Such back-and-forth between adoring Putin fans and enthusiastic legislators is about the only thing that remains of political debate in the Russian Federation. Mironov's request was meant to show how democratic Russia still is by giving Putin a chance to decline, though the speaker would like nothing more than to have Putin stay. The "third term" issue has been on the table for some time, with Putin continually humbly declining it. It does give Putin the option in the future to bend to the masses and accept the nomination; however, Putin has not shown any movement toward accepting. After seven years of political consolidation under Putin's administration, Russia's post-Cold War democratization has been rolled up and packed away. The pro-Kremlin United Russia party handily swept the 2003 Duma elections, walking away with an unassailable two-thirds majority. And another Kremlin-created party — the nationalist Rodina — took half of the seats from the inaptly named Liberal Democrats of ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. They are now joined by a third Kremlin-inspired political grouping: Just Russia (or Fair Russia, depending on the translation). Just as Rodina was explicitly designed to snag support from the far right, Just Russia's raison d'etre is to siphon support from the center-left — which, in Russia, means the communists. It appears the Kremlin's goal is simple: to foster the development of a true multiparty democracy — with all parties in the Duma pledging their loyalty first and foremost to the Kremlin. Political competition is not only allowed, but also encouraged — so long as that competition is conceived, birthed, developed, raised, managed and scrupulously approved by the Kremlin. And just as the outcome of the Duma elections in December is preordained, so too is that of next March's presidential election. The two "contenders" are the country's first deputy prime ministers, Sergei Ivanov and Dmitri Medvedev. Putin has worked with both for more than a decade, and state media have been drooling over both for the better part of the past year. Ivanov is a nationalist, but not a blind one. Medvedev is a reformer, but not a naive one. Taken together, the two will likely prove an able management team. And "taken together" is mostly likely what will happen. One (probably Medvedev, due to his mass appeal in Russia) will be president, while the other will serve as his No. 2, the prime minister. This decision will be made by Putin in the weeks — or perhaps hours — before the March election. The main questions arising from all this scrupulous scripting are: What about Putin? Will he take over a mammoth energy holding such as Gazprom and run the country's economic policy? Will he return to the Federal Security Service and adopt the role of spymaster-in-chief? Will he resign with a sigh, convinced he has done all he can and truly turn the reins of power over to his two allies? Or will he simply be the power behind the throne? At this point, Putin is probably the only person who knows the details of his plans. But it is publicly understood that while Putin's foreign and economic policies have not always met with success, his manipulation of Russia's political system has never missed a beat. He has immaculately tailored every aspect of the process, and whatever he explicitly desires to transpire is exactly what will. So what will Putin end up doing? Whatever he pleases.