Vladimir Putin pulled another rabbit out of his presidential hat yesterday, surprising analysts by suggesting that he might become prime minister after he leaves the Kremlin.
He left them scrambling to predict how Russia's political landscape will look after presidential elections next March, giving his clearest indication to date that he intends to remain very much at the centre of Russian politics, despite being barred by the constitution from seeking a third presidential term.
Less than three weeks after appointing the little-known bureaucrat Viktor Zubkov to the post of prime minister, there could be a role reversal next year, with Mr Zubkov becoming a passive president and Mr Putin a powerful prime minister.
In this scenario, "all branches of executive power will have to take into account Mr Putin's position," said the Moscow-based analyst Gleb Pavlovksy.
"It will create a second centre of power in society, equal to presidential power."
In remarks to the con-gress of United Russia, the Kremlin-backed party that is expected to dominate December's parliamentary elections, Mr Putin agreed to head the party list for the poll and said it was a "quite realistic idea" that he could become prime minister.
One of the delegates at the conference, Yelena Lakshina from the region of Ivanovo, begged Mr Putin to stay on in the top job.
"Let's think of something together, so that Vladimir Vladimirovich can stay president after 2008," she implored him. "I'm not sure that everything will continue to get better if you're no longer president."
But Mr Putin has repeatedly vowed that he will not allow Russia's constitution to be altered, despite high popularity ratings and impassioned appeals from various political figures.
These denials sparked a guessing game over what Mr Putin might do next: chairman of Gazprom is one popular suggestion; heading the International Olympic Committee another. Most people – including Mr Putin himself – have refused to rule out a return to the presidential job at a later date. The constitution only bars him from three consecutive terms.
Now the question seems to have been answered, although the Russian President may well have further surprises in store before he steps down as president.
Mr Putin told the conference that there were two conditions that would need to be met for him to become prime minister: first, United Russia must win the parliamentary elections; and second, the new president must be "decent, capable and effective". Then, said Mr Putin, he would be able to "work as a pair" with the new president.
If these really are Mr Putin's only two conditions, then it is likely that by next summer Russia will have a Prime Minister Putin. United Russia's victory in December's elections is virtually guaranteed, given that it has the full support of the Kremlin and extensive, positive coverage from state-controlled television.Reuse content