Many observers of Russia are puzzled as to why President Vladimir Putin went to such bizarre lengths to turn the country's recent legislative elections into a "national referendum" on his own rule.
After all, Putin completely dominates the political stage, and he could have easily initiated and passed any changes to the constitution needed for him to run for another term as president. His oft-repeated assertions that he respects the letter and the spirit of the current constitution ring hollow, given Kremlin policies like the restriction of opposition political parties, strictures on civil society, suppression of nonstate media, subordination of the judicial system, and abolition of the direct election of regional administration heads.
Even most foreign observers -- while noting the unfair nature of the Duma elections and the myriad ways the Kremlin misused its power against weak political opponents -- have never really doubted the outright victory of the pro-Putin forces.
That victory was never in doubt because Putin is genuinely popular, for a mixture of objective and subjective reasons. Because of the vast revenues Russia accrues due to high global energy prices, the standard of living for many Russians is improving markedly -- and most of them attribute that prosperity to Putin personally. Putin has also hijacked populist policies from both the right and left ends of the spectrum. Borrowing from the left, he has increased pensions and state aid programs. From the right, Putin adopted the policy of a sharp reduction of business taxes and a low, flat-rate income tax for individuals. Finally, Putin's efforts to restore Russia's standing as a power in the international arena is enormously popular among Russians, many of whom remain bitter about the economic hardships and foreign-policy weakness of the 1990s. The yearning for a restoration of Russia's prestige is expressed throughout society, in areas as diverse as sports and the arts. This feeling has saturated the atmosphere because of the Kremlin's skillful manipulation.
A career intelligence officer, Putin has taken considerable pains to conceal his plans. It has become commonplace to say that Russian policy under Putin has become a series of "special operations." This secrecy is simply a part of the mindset of Putin and the siloviki -- people associated with the security organs and the military -- who surround him.
Until mid-December, there was evidence that Putin was having trouble choosing a successor for when his current term expires in March 2008. His anointing of First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev does not necessarily make things simpler. Many believed the successor should come from among the siloviki who form Putin's inner circle, or at least be acceptable to them. It is unclear how Medvedev, who does not come from the ranks of the siloviki, will hold up. Moreover, because these siloviki are divided among themselves, it's unclear there is even such a thing as a candidate acceptable to all factions -- one who will be recognized as the supreme commander by the entire military and security community. Putin must also keep in mind that Russia is the world's second most powerful nuclear power and Medvedev, if he remains the successor of choice, must be an acceptable and predictable partner for the international community, particularly the United States.
Some clues about Putin's intentions can be found in an 800-page manifesto issued last summer by a group of about 70 pro-Putin, national-patriotic academics under the title "Russian Doctrine." The book is presented as a set of "guidelines" for the next administration and a kind of national, supra-party platform. It contains detailed foreign- and domestic-policy proposals, including autocratic reforms to the military, national-security sy