A SHADOWY group of Kremlin insiders is urging President Vladimir Putin to return to his post just one year after he steps down in March, when his second and supposedly final term ends.
The siloviki, as the group of former KGB officers is known, want Putin to serve as president for at least another eight years and possibly until 2023. The constitution blocks anyone from serving more than two consecutive terms.
Last week Putin took some of his closest aides by surprise when he hinted that he might become prime minister. According to the siloviki plan, he would come back as president after a short stint as prime minister.
This would not require a change to the constitution because there would a brief interval between his second and third terms. Once back in the Kremlin, Putin would be legally entitled to serve two more four-year terms.
"For more than two years the assumption was that Putin would bow out of Russian politics for good when his tenure ends in the spring. Now there's been a sea change," said a source close to the president's office.
"There's no question now that Putin wants to stay on, either as prime minister or by coming back as president. It's a move that the entire establishment and much of the Russian population supports."
Putin has resisted pressure from the siloviki, which roughly translates as men of power, to stay on by amending the constitution. He has said he is in favour of extending the presidential term from four to five or even seven years, but that he does not want to alter the constitution while in office.
His comments have led to speculation that the constitution may be changed once he becomes prime minister. In theory he could then rule for up to 14 more years.
If so, Putin, who was plucked from obscurity by his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, would then have ruled Russia for 22 years, four more than Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet Union's longest serving leader after Joseph Stalin.
The siloviki are led by Igor Sechin, Putin's secretive deputy chief of staff, and Viktor Ivanov, one of the president's closest aides. Both men are said to fear that a strong successor to Putin would curb their power and push them out of the Kremlin.
Experts said that even as prime minister Putin would continue to rule Russia. A simple majority vote in parliament is all that is needed for the powers of the prime minister to be enhanced at the expense of the presidency.
Viktor Zubkov, Russia's new prime minister, is being touted as a likely successor to the presidency. Close to Putin and lacking his own power base, Zubkov is viewed as a willing caretaker.
"This is only the beginning of the Putin era," said Vyacheslav Nikonov, the head of a think tank connected to the Kremlin. Vladimir Pozner, one of Russia's most respected political commentators, said: "Most Russians want Putin to stay on because they feel he is giving them back their pride."
Yesterday Putin named former prime minister Mikhail Fradkov as head of his foreign intelligence service, further tightening his grip on power.
Putin, who is 55 today, has done little to discourage the growth of a Soviet-style personality cult. In the latest example of "Putin-mania" - which has seen pro-Kremlin youth groups march in T-shirts emblazoned with his portrait - a play is to open later this year in Vladivostok in which the president is portrayed as an all-action hero.
However, Putin's few remaining critics at home warn that he will become more authoritarian if he stays. "With Putin's announcement about possibly staying on as prime minister, the presidential elections have lost whatever meaning they could have had," said Tanya Lokshina, a leading human rights campaigner. ( Times )