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Political analysts in Russia say the transition plan is clear. "What they are signaling is that in 2012, they will not compete with each other for the presidency. They will sit down and decide in an orderly fashion which of them will be the next President. If Putin wants it, he will take it, and the public will then legitimize this decision at the polls," says Alexei Makarkin, deputy head of the Center for Political Technologies, a think tank in Moscow. "There's no room here for Western ideas of plurality, debate or political struggle. Nobody wants that here. The public wants to know exactly what's coming and whom they should vote for well in advance."
Some pundits, pointing to Putin's wish to regain full control of the Kremlin as soon as possible, believe he may return to the presidency next year by asking Medvedev to take the fall for the financial crisis and resign. That would trigger a snap election, which Putin would be sure to win. His approval ratings are still around 65%, despite a year that saw an economic recession, spiking unemployment, a sharp currency devaluation, the murder of several human-rights activists and persistent terrorist attacks.
"Changing places too suddenly would create dissonance in the dance they've created," says Makarkin, who believes Putin will avoid a hasty or obvious power grab ahead of the 2012 vote. Instead, he could use the next few years to pass messy reforms, which would then be associated not with his reign but with Medvedev's. One of these is a constitutional amendment that is expected to pass this month; announced in Medvedev's first state-of-the-nation address last year, it would extend the presidential term from four to six years and would go into effect, of course, only after the next election. This would allow the next President to hold the post until 2024.
"All the levers are in their hands for enacting this change," says Lilya Shibanova, director of Russia's only independent election watchdog, Golos, or Voice. Putin's political party, United Russia, has enough seats in the parliament to change the constitution single-handedly. "So far in the political arena, there is no competition to the tandem of Putin and Medvedev," Shibanova says. "And to think that Medvedev could in any way compete with Putin is quite frankly naive."
That means United Russia will probably field Putin, its chairman, as the favored candidate. Now 56, Putin would then be free to legally hold the presidency until the ripe old age of 72. As student Kryukov (whose name was given as Kurikov in the transcript of the show that was posted on the government's website) puts it, "He said what I expected him to say."