Russian President Vladimir Putin is due to stand down in May of next year, and so far he has insisted he is going to do just that, and has ruled out all talk of him possibly seeking a third term in office.
This would in any case be contrary to the Russian constitution, but that hasn't stopped speculation that Putin will somehow try to engineer things so that he could come back into office, perhaps after the next president's term, in 2012 or even sooner.
Now rumors are swirling around Moscow that Putin's close circle, including Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, want to keep their boss in the Kremlin. The liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta claims to have uncovered evidence that a working group in the presidential office is currently drafting a change to the constitution to ensure that Putin doesn't have to retire just yet.
Former Putin advisor Andrei Illarionov predicts that the presidential elections -- due to take place next March -- will simply be cancelled towards the end of the year, after December elections in the Russian parliament, or Duma. These elections will be the first to be held using proportional representation, and the new 7 percent threshold will probably make it even harder for opposition groups to be elected.
In fact, the pro-Kremlin United Russia party already holds the necessary two-thirds majority to push through any constitutional reform. According to Illarionov, the new parliament could simply change "the structure of the state constitution, so that the head of state does not have to be directly elected any more."
And foreign observers have also seen indications of moves to keep Putin in office. Eberhard Schneider, advisory board member at the EU-Russia Center in Brussels, is convinced that there will be no need for a third term. He thinks the constitution will be changed, so that the presidential term will be extended from four to seven years.
Putin would then have three more years, until 2011, and the current Kremlin team would have enough time to further entrench their positions in politics and in the economy.
President Putin already told SPIEGEL in June that he thought it made sense to extend the term. "We took over the four-year term from the Americans," he said. "Perhaps this is a little short for Russia at the moment. You need at least two years to properly learn the ropes, and then it's already time for the next campaign."
The Third Man?
At the moment the two most likely successors are seen as Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev, both deputy prime ministers. But Dmitry Trenin, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, says if Putin endorses one of them, most likely Ivanov, he will install the other as prime minister and expand that position's powers so that neither men would have as much power as he currently enjoys.
However, another possibility is that the two crown princes could be pushed aside in favor of someone else. Senior Putin aide Igor Shuvalov said recently in Washington that the appearance of a third figure should not be ruled out. "People talk about two possible candidates, but the president may come up with another surprise, and perhaps later this year you could learn about another possible figure," he said.
Although the Kremlin quickly stressed that this was not an official statement, analysts in Russia saw it as the latest in the series of manoeuvers in "Operation Successor."
The goal is "to keep confusing the public opinion in Russia and the West, so as to make everything as vague as possible," Boris Makarenko of the Political Technologies Center told Russian business daily Kommersant. "The more certainty in the successor issue, the sooner Vladimir Putin becomes a lame duck."