Putin's clouded promisePresident Vladimir Putin sent out intentionally murky signals last week about the future of democracy in Russia. He said he saw no need to change the constitution so that he could run for a third term in 2008. But he also promised a fawning questioner that he would not disappear. That promise had a backward thrust to it, much like the Soviet-style parades this year, the jailing of Putin's political opponents and the narrowing of press freedoms. Now, as Russia faces the most basic test of its democratic progress - holding real elections - Putin seems determined to pull the strings.
Already there are strong signals that he is talking to potential replacements, and there is little chance that any non-favored candidates will be welcome. A former prime minister who was interested in running bowed out after his purchase of a country house suddenly came under investigation.
Putin's solitaire game of "good cop, bad cop" seems aimed at two concerns. One is the restlessness of voters and residents in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. The Putin crowd is said to be haunted in particular by the Ukrainian elections last year, when the Ukrainian president chose a successor who was then defeated soundly by the opposition. For Putin, this is not the correct ending.
But Russia is also preparing for the intense international attention expected when the Group of 8 nations meet in St. Petersburg next year. About 7,000 or so reporters, who will not be under the Kremlin's thumb, can be expected to remind the world about Putin's increasingly autocratic rule.
In the long run, the best way for Putin to solve his "2008 problem" will be to keep his promise not to run again and to make certain Russian voters have a real choice when they replace him.