Russia's succession challengeNEW YORK When European leaders meet with President Vladimir Putin in London on Oct. 4, they should encourage him to resolve Russia's "2008 problem": the open question of whether Putin will find a way to remain in power beyond 2008, the date to which he is, for now, constitutionally limited.
The question has become a topic of heated discussion in Moscow political circles, not least because Putin himself has done little to dampen speculation that he may look to extend his presidency.
On Tuesday, during a television call-in show, Putin was again deliberately ambiguous about his plans after scheduled elections in 2008, denying that he would seek to change the constitution, but stopping short of saying that he would step down. "Let's keep the intrigue going," he told Russian reporters after the show.
What Moscow decides on this question has serious implications for Russia itself, but also beyond the country's borders. That's because a debilitating feature of the governing systems in the former Soviet Union was the absence of reliable and democratic succession mechanisms. Since 1991, few presidents in post-Soviet countries have left office voluntarily.
Presidential succession in the countries of the former Soviet Union has revolved around extension of terms by incumbents through flawed referenda, or by greasing the succession wheels through controlled successor selection. With many long-serving leaders in the region entering advanced age, the succession question is becoming even more relevant.
Russia's vote in 2008 is critical, but is just one of 10 scheduled in the former Soviet Union in 2005 and 2006, notably the parliamentary elections in November in Azerbaijan and presidential elections in Kazakhstan in December.
The Kremlin, for its part, has been busy at work minimizing the prospects at home for meaningful political competition.
In June this year, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov indicated that he might run for president in 2008. Within weeks, prosecutors began looking into allegations that, while in office, Kasyanov had bought a home from the state for less than 2 percent of its market value. The investigation has effectively derailed a Kasyanov candidacy.
In May, a Moscow court sentenced the billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky to nine years in prison after he was convicted of fraud and tax evasion. The state took action soon after Khodorkovsky had become actively engaged in politics in opposition to Putin.
All of this occurs in the context of a highly restrictive political landscape - national broadcast media, for instance, present little serious analysis or criticism of the authorities in Russia. After five years of marginalizing independent groups in Russia, Putin and his associates face no real competition.
Putin himself came to power through a guided handover. Boris Yeltsin resigned from office in 1999 six months before the end of his term in order to ensure that Putin, his handpicked successor, would be elected. As part of this handover, Putin signed a decree assuring Yeltsin and his family immunity from prosecution for redistribution of property and violence against Parliament that took place during Yeltsin's watch.
Other incumbents in the region, from Belarus to Azerbaijan to Uzbekistan, have used a similar tack, keeping state resources and authority within the elite circle of their families and political associates.
The sad fact is that the "leader for life" model was not laid to rest with the demise of the Soviet Union. The Soviet successor states have retained one of the worst features of a bad system.
At a time when Russia and other post-Soviet governments should be devoting energies to urgent economic and social reforms, much of the ruling elites' time is absorbed by the unproductive efforts of retaining unchecked power.
Incumbents' propensity to bend the system to remain in power is not surprising. It is, however, severely retarding these countries' political development.
What Putin and his associates choose to do on the succession question will determine Russia's political course for the second decade of the 21st century. A Kremlin gambit to keep Putin in office beyond 2008 by altering the constitution would also signal to autocrats on Russia's periphery that even the veneer of democratic practice is unnecessary.
The democracies of the European Union, along with the United States, must encourage Putin to step off the political stage in 2008, allowing Russians a free and fair vote - and a sorely needed opportunity for a democratic rotation of power.
(Christopher Walker, director of studies at Freedom House in New York, is co-editor of Freedom House's survey of governance, 'Countries at the Crossroads.')