Why, suddenly, are so many people talking (again) about the possibility of Vladimir Putin seeking a third term as Russian president?
The idea - which many thought had gone away when Vladimir Vladimirovich started mumbling about how neat he thought the prime minister's job would be - has shot back to the forefront in recent days after Alexander Shokhin, the head of the powerful Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, told Itogi magazine that it was "quite possible" for Putin to legally run for a third term, despite an apparent constitutional ban on him doing so.
The plan, which was later expanded on in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper (the Jamestown Foundation has an analysis here), would see Putin run at the head of the United Russia ticket in next month's Duma elections, then resign from the Kremlin to assume his seat in parliament. An interim president would be appointed and, since Putin would no longer be seeking a third "consecutive" term, Vladimir Vladimirovich would be free to run for his old job in the March 2 presidential vote after just a couple of months out of office.
Could Putin be this cynical? I was actually somewhat relieved when he started talking about the PM's job, since it at least preserved the idea that the constitution should mean something in the Russian Federation, even if it currently does not. At the very least, there would be the faint possibility that the next president might occasionally disagree with PM Putin, ensuring he alone wouldn't completely dominate the political scene.
Abusing a consitutional loophole to run for a third term - a blatant bending of the state's basic law by the president - would make it clear that concepts such as the rule of law and democracy now mean absolutely nothing in modern Russia. It's a short walk from democracy to autocracy, an even shorter one from there to outright dictatorship.
Any hope that the Russian people will oppose this in large numbers is rapidly fading. A group calling itself simply "Pro-Putin" claims to have collected 30 million signatures urging VVP to stay on. That seems inflated, but there's a definitely an effort foot to at least create the perception of public support for the initiative. The zaputina ("For Putin") website has collected upwards of 63,000 signatures calling for their beloved president to stay on.
No wonder the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has withdrawn its monitoring mission for the Duma elections. It's becoming quite clear that there's going to be nothing like a real election to observe.