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What is Putin's game?

By Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
BBC News, Moscow

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin will be in charge for some time to come, commentators say
I went to see Vladimir Putin's spokesman the other night.

Dmitry Peskov is tall and urbane. He chain smokes Marlboro Red cigarettes and speaks excellent English.

He is also a master of evading the tricky question.

So the last thing I was expecting was him to admit that his boss is planning a return to the Kremlin.

He didn't, of course. But he came tantalisingly close. I asked if Mr Putin could come back as president and stay until 2024.

"I certainly hope so," he said.

"If you do the maths that is absolutely possible."

It is possible because Russia is changing its constitution, and doing so with unseemly haste.

President Dmitry Medvedev may have called for the change. But few doubt that the real architect is Mr Putin.

"What this shows is that Medvedev is carrying out Putin's plan," says Mikhail Fishman, editor of Russian Newsweek.

He says it's now clear President Medvedev is not an independent operator, but has been put in power to carry out specific orders made by Mr Putin.

Putin is the most powerful leader in Russia since Stalin
Mikhail Fishman
Editor, Russian Newsweek

"One of those was that he had to appoint Putin to be his prime minister. Another is that he has to change the constitution. What we don't know is what other orders he has."

Some think the next item on Mr Medvedev's list will be to step down and call early elections next year, to allow Mr Putin to return even earlier. Who knows?

What it does show is that Russia is not a country that runs according to any sort of "democratic norms".

"Putin is the most powerful leader in Russia since Stalin," says Mr Fishman.

"What he says has to be done. That's wasn't true of Yeltsin, or Gorbachev, or even Brezhnev."

Dangerous game

Others, though, have a different interpretation of what is going on.

Garry Kasparov is one. The world's greatest ever chess player has retired from the game. Instead, he is playing an infinitely more complex and dangerous one: trying to bring down what he calls the "Kremlin regime".

"People ask whether it's Putin or Medvedev who has the power. I don't care," he tells me at his Moscow apartment.

Garry Kasparov
Garry Kasparov believes Russia is run by a "family"

"This regime is sending the message to the rest of the world, and to Russian people, that we are staying! We are not going to leave office through any normal democratic procedure."

The picture painted by Mr Kasparov is bleak. He likens Russia to a mafia state, run by a "family" inside the Kremlin.

Mr Putin may be the current head of the "family", but it is essentially the "family firm" that is important.

The opposition has been bought off. The media is back under "family" control, and elections are window dressing to keep the West happy.

But it is a window dressing that Mr Putin, in particular, seems to take a great deal of care over.

His spokesman, Mr Peskov, loves telling me that Russia is "as democratic as Britain or America. Maybe even more democratic".

Throughout Mr Putin's eight-year presidency he did not touch the constitution. He did not meddle with it to extend his own presidential term, even though he could have done.

He stepped down on time and handed over to an elected successor.

Now, if he does come back to power, it will be that successor, Dmitry Medvedev, who will have been responsible for meddling with the constitution, even if it is Mr Putin who will benefit, by being able to stay in power for another 12 years.

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