- The Washington Times - Monday, November 14, 2005

MOSCOW — A draft constitution to be submitted to national leaders today would unite Russia and Belarus in a new country, potentially establishing a way for President Vladimir Putin to stay in power after his second term expires.

Boris Gryzlov, the head of the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, announced last month that the draft was being prepared for Mr. Putin and Belorussian President Alexander Lukashenko. If approved, the constitution could go to referendums in both countries next year.

Although the so-called Russia-Belarus Union has been under discussion for years, some analysts think work on the project has been hastened ahead of Russia’s 2008 presidential elections.

Mr. Putin yesterday named two key allies to top Cabinet posts, fueling speculation that he is paving the way for potential successors. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov was named deputy prime minister and will retain his defense post. Mr. Putin’s chief of staff, Dmitry Medvedev, was named first deputy prime minister. Both have been touted as successors to Mr. Putin.

But few think Mr. Putin is closing the door on staying in power himself.

He has said repeatedly that the Russian constitution should not be changed to allow for more than two presidential terms. But the unification of Russia and Belarus would entail the adoption of a new constitution, opening the door to him retain power.

“He really would like to remain in power, but he understands that prolonging his term will be badly perceived in the West and would put him on an equal footing with dictators in Central Asia,” said Yevgeny Volk, the head of the Heritage Foundation’s Moscow office.

“So he and his people are preparing a scheme that would make Putin remaining president digestible in the West,” Mr. Volk added.

Mr. Volk said another option being discussed inside the Kremlin is expanding parliamentary powers and turning the presidency into a largely ceremonial position. Mr. Putin then could become prime minister as head of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, the largest party in the Duma.

In a September poll of 1,500 Russians, 51 percent supported legislation to allow Mr. Putin to run again in 2008.

Russia and Belarus formed a loose union in 1996, but further integration has been hampered by Mr. Lukashenko’s reluctance to cede power to Moscow.

Mr. Lukashenko has ruled his country of 10.3 million with an iron fist for more than a decade, imposing Soviet-style economic controls, silencing political opponents and running a series of flawed elections. The United States has called him “Europe’s last dictator” and openly supports regime change in Belarus.

Pressure has been mounting on Mr. Lukashenko since democratic revolutions overthrew post-Soviet regimes in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

“This is a good time to put pressure on Lukashenko. He may be wondering about his political future and looking to keep at least something,” said Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center.

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