Kremlinology: So what is 'Prime Minister' Putin playing at now?

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The old Russian art of Kremlinology – trying to work out what is happening in a deliberately opaque system of government – is back. Only this time it's called Putinology.

As Vladimir Putin has consolidated his power in Russia, a familiar guessing game of "who's in and who's out" has returned, based on TV appearances, placement next to the president at prominent events, and the occasional cryptic remark by the man himself. Even when Mr Putin has been explicit, insisting that he would not seek to change the constitution and permit himself a third term as president next spring, the punditocracy assumed he meant something else.

Gradually he has been taken at his word, however, and the goal has shifted to trying to decipher who should be seen as his anointed successor. Three weeks ago the Prime Minister, Mikhail Fradkov, suddenly "resigned", and Mr Putin, as if from thin air, chose Viktor Zubkov, an ageing grey bureaucrat. Could he really be in line to be the next president?

Equally suddenly, Mr Putin suggested last week that he would run for the Duma, or parliament, and did not rule out becoming Prime Minister. His remarks were made at the annual conference of United Russia – a Kremlin-backed political party whose slogan for the December parliamentary elections is "Putin's plan is Russia's victory" – and are unlikely to have been off the cuff.

It all seems to make sense: Mr Zubkov's appointment looks very much like the first link in a chain designed to lead to Mr Putin in a newly powerful prime ministerial role, with a possible return to the presidency in 2012, or perhaps earlier if Mr Zubkov "decides" to step aside.

In any case, Mr Putin's statement, and his addition that he hopes the new president is someone he could "work as a pair" with, demonstrate that while he might baulk at changing the constitution in letter, he's happy to trample it in spirit. It is not clear why such a convoluted process is needed when the Duma, and most Russians, would have been happy to tear up the constitution and simply let him stay on for a third term.

Russian history, however, teaches that Mr Zubkov, or whoever the new president turns out to be, should not be written off. Lenin was a marginalised fanatic when he showed up in St Petersburg in April 1917; Stalin was described as a "grey blur. Mr Putin himself, when thrust into the prime minister's job in 1999 by an ailing Boris Yeltsin, was seen as a comically dull bureaucrat who wouldn't stay in the limelight for long. How wrong that turned out to be.

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