MOSCOW-By announcing his decision to top the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party list, President Vladimir Putin has effectively wrapped up the parliamentary and presidential elections months ahead of time. First and foremost he solved the problem that dogs most leaders in democratic countries when they are heading to the end of their last term in office; he doesn't need to step down . . . exactly.
Mr. Putin certainly can't be treated like a lame duck; he has defined pretty clearly the place he's going to take in Russia's political structure once his current term has expired: the prime minister's seat. Until last Monday Putin had kept everybody guessing how and whether he could exercise power in Russia after he steps down as president in May 2008. The intrigue allowed him to be in the game up to the last second. Even as the buzzer went off, Putin added overtime. He will be able to try to realize his vision of what Russia should look like in years to come-and nothing seems to be standing in his way. His huge popularity should drive the United Russia Party to electoral triumph in December.
The majority in the State Duma will provide the party with an opportunity to both impose himself as prime minister, no matter who the president is, and with a lever to amend the constitution if necessary. Few expect that the next president will contest Mr. Putin's aspiration to become the head of government. At the same time, polls have shown that about 30% of the electorate is going to support whomever Mr. Putin defines as his preferable successor anyway. A seemingly perfect maneuver-Putin stays in power without breaching the Constitution or amending it for his own sake. And since no laws have been broken, the West has few, if any, arguments to criticize the use of "undemocratic" means to hold the office.
This latest development could-in theory-prove beneficial for both Russia and the West. Putin's decision ostensibly leaves no room for a political vacuum in the timeframe between 2008 and 2012 (when Mr. Putin will be able to run again for the presidency and the coming "interim" president steps down). And, hopefully, it leaves no room for major instability. With Mr. Putin in power the West at least knows where Russia stands. It's the lesser of two evils in a country that 16 years after the collapse of the one-party system still lacks a viable opposition with a modern leader.
Putin's decision to stay in power may mean greater stability for Russia. Although the current pace of reforms intended to solve the most acute internal problems-like fighting corruption and reducing the growing disparity between rich and poor-leaves much to be desired, the opposition has yet to prove that it indeed presents a viable alternative to "Putin's plan-Victory for Russia."
Andrey Terekhov is a staff writer for the Moscow-based daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta (The Independent Daily).