An audience with Putin, the leader who insists his work is nearly done

Speculation is growing that the Russian president will seek a third term in office. It's nonsense, he tells Mary Dejevsky, in an audience at his summer residence
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The Independent Online

Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, sought to dispel once and for all speculation that he might seek a third term in office, despite mounting public pressure for him to do so. He also quashed expectations that he would name – or even indicate – a favoured successor, stressing that he intended to use every last second of the last six months of his term to accelerate national infrastructure projects.

He said that the new Prime Minister, Viktor Zubkov – whose appointment was confirmed by the Russian parliament yesterday – was free to stand for the presidency if he wanted to, but stressed that if he did, he would be one of at least five candidates.

Mr Putin noted that the new prime minister, who he described as "a real professional, a brilliant administrator", had not ruled out running for the presidency. "I think that was a calm and balanced answer," he said, adding: "Now it is hard to see. He still has to work, in a pretty difficult period, and we have to get the ... [parliamentary] elections out the way. Then we will see."

Mr Putin was answering questions from a group of foreign Russia specialists, who were invited to his official summer residence on the Black Sea yesterday. Many of his responses were clearly designed to kill off rumours that he, or those close to him, might engineer an amendment to the constitution allowing him to stand for a third term. With an approval rating of more than 70 per cent, Mr Putin would easily win.

Asked about his plans once he left office, Mr Putin said he had not decided what to do but he would certainly do something, possibly in full-time politics or some administrative field. He said he expected to move to a village about 90 kilometres outside Moscow, where there was land that had been in his family since the 16th century. He added that he had been shown the parish records which had been brought to him in the Kremlin.

He defended his choice of Viktor Zubkov as prime minister and the way in which the appointment was made. There has been much criticism in recent days from opposition figures who have questioned the secrecy in which the appointment was made and the choice of Mr Zubkov.

Mr Putin sketched out the new prime minister's career, noting that he had the profile of a classic Soviet-era communist party administrator but had always been a consummate professional who had a calm temperament and was absolutely incorruptible. He stressed that Mr Zubkov had risen to the position of chief financial watchdog and while he was head of that department not a single case of corruption had occurred among officials there. Corruption and the government's failure to tackle it are expected to be issues in the December parliamentary elections.

Mr Putin said that Mr Zubkov's promotion should not be interpreted as a sign that he was designated the next president. "If one more realistic candidate emerges, then Russian citizens will be able to choose among several people," he said.

The reason he gave for changing the prime minister now, so close to the election season, was that there was a mood in the Cabinet where some people were planning already for their next job after the election. He said there was still a lot of work for the government to do and it was right that those who wanted to go should go now and those who wanted to stay and work should stay and work.

Russian Kremlin watchers noted that any move by President Putin to designate a successor would immediately render him a "lame duck'' as members of his team transferred their loyalty. The presidential election is due to take place next March.

Time and again Mr Putin, who is constitutionally barred from running for a third term, referred to his utter determination not to seek another mandate. He said he had taken the decision years ago, perhaps even when he first became president eight years ago. He said that it was important for the future of Russia that its stability was not linked with any one individual or group of individuals. The system had to be sound enough to permit a smooth succession.

If he does hand over power after a legitimate election in March, this will be the first time in its history that Russia has ever seen an orderly, democratic transfer of power.

Mr Putin spoke at length about the nature of the Russian state, the need for stability and his view that Russia needed both a strong presidency and a strong parliament. He said that a precondition for a strong parliament was a developed multi-party system and that this was taking a long time to evolve. He defended the notion of a strong presidency by saying that France had a similar system and joked: "As for the American presidency, you could hardly call that a weak institution."

The academics and journalists who were invited to yesterday's gathering comprised a group first convened by the Russian authorities in 2004, when the reputation of Mr Putin and the image of Russia abroad were on the slide. Those invited are mostly American and European Russia specialists, a Russian version of the "old China hands" who used to meet Chinese leaders. The group of about 30 people has met for several days every year since, and each meeting has concluded with an extensive interview with the president. No questions are submitted in advance and the exchanges are unscripted and, to all appearances, entirely spontaneous.

Summer palace fit for a tsar

The summer residence of the Russian President is in a curious position on the edge of the Black Sea resort of Sochi. You come across it at the end of a labyrinth of seemingly suburban streets with names like Strawberry Street, Grape Street and Fig Street. It was used by past Soviet leaders, including Leonid Brezhnev, who received foreign communist and trade union leaders there. It is also the place where, in 1991, Boris Yeltsin and other leaders of Soviet republics plotted the renunciation of the Treaty that founded the USSR, preparing the way for the end of the Soviet Union.

Sochi is resort city of 300,000 people with a semi tropical climate, that flourished in the late 19th century. In Soviet times it became a workers' playground with an increasingly bad and low-grade reputation. But it has gained a new lease of life thanks to vast investment since the collapse of the Soviet Union, as the more upmarket resorts of Crimea were in the former Soviet republic of Ukraine. As a result of massive restoration projects in the past five years, Sochi was able to clinch the 2014 winter Olympics.

The presidential complex, in its contemporary form, is on a relatively small scale for such official buildings, and on a more human scale than many Soviet-era residences. There are three rambling houses built in the 1950's modernist style, perched high on cliffs over the Black Sea. The residence used for official meetings has a sun room and a carpeted terrace with a panoramic view of the Black Sea.

The entrance to the complex is through an unassuming driveway, with a guard controlling the traffic. Visitors pass by large and rather neglected greenhouses and gardens with tall trees and tropical plants, to reach what appear to be recent additions: two enormous single-storey prefabricated buildings that function as a press centre for journalists accredited to the Kremlin, and another equally cavernous hall where yesterday's meeting with President Vladimir Putin took place over dinner. The menu included a starter of venison, followed by beetroot soup, salmon and kulebiaka, with a "trio of chocolate desserts". Additional drinks and cakes were served later on the terrace.

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