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Russia may extend presidential term

MOSCOW, Dec. 8 (UPI) -- While President Vladimir Putin is away on a trip to Greece to discuss ways to expand bilateral economic cooperation, Russia's political elite continued debates on whether the Constitution should be amended to extend the presidential term from four to seven years.

"I assume that for Russia a four-year presidential term is insufficient," said Sergei Mironov, the new speaker of Russia's upper house of parliament, the Federation Council.

Mironov's statement Friday came on his third day as the chamber's head after he replaced Yegor Stroyev.

The speaker also added that the Federation Council could initiate the procedure to amend the Constitution.

Putin was elected president in a landslide ballot in March 2000 and will hold his seat until the next election scheduled for 2004.

Mironov stirred much reaction as Russian media and leading political figures argued how the potential extension of the presidential term might affect Russia.

Moscow's influential Kommersant daily newspaper quoted Saturday an unnamed Kremlin official as saying that "the president's position has remained unchanged -- the Constitution should be treated very carefully."

The source added that Putin was likely to have Mironov clarify personally his position to the president after he returns from abroad, Kommersant reported.

Another Moscow daily, Novye Izvestia, speculated that Putin -- if an appropriate constitutional amendment is passed -- could theoretically hold on to power for 17 years.

According to the paper, the amendments would allow for two seven-year successive presidential terms and Putin's first three years of tenure as president wouldn't count as they occurred before the constitutional changes.

Advocates of the proposed changes, such as renowned political analyst Sergei Markov, maintain that Putin's potential long rule would bring only more benefits to Russia.

Markov said that a longer term would help preserve Russia's stability and ensure continuation of a broad range of reforms that Putin has undertaken to bring about.

Vladimir Rizhkov, a Duma deputy, opposed Markov's statement by saying that extending the presidential tenure could have only negative consequences for Russia which would be plunged into stagnation, similar to that during the 18-year rule of Leonid Brezhnev.

Flamboyant ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky claimed Mironov was only voicing the idea that he had talked of years ago when he suggested Russia follow examples of other countries such as France or Kazakhstan and introduce a five or seven-year presidential terms.

In his interview with the Interfax news agency Friday, the leader of Russia's right-wing liberals, Boris Nemtsov slammed Mironov's proposal.

"I believe that Putin is not a turkmenbashi," Nemtsov told Interfax, referring to the local title of ex-Soviet Turkmenistan's authoritarian President Saparmurat Niyazov, whom loyal legislators once offered to remain president for life.

"I also believe that there won't be any constitutional changes in coming years. Eight years of presidency is quite enough for President Putin," added Nemtsov, whom analysts view as a serious challenger to Putin in the next presidential election.

According to Nemtsov, "any changes of the Constitution could bring instability and pose a big danger for Russia."

It is also doubtful whether Mironov's initiative could be adopted at all as constitutional changes require a hefty support of both houses of the parliament.

At least two-thirds of deputies sitting in the lower house, the State Duma, would have to endorse the change and then at least three-fourths of the legislators in the Federation Council would have to confirm that vote in order to amend the Constitution.

Nemtsov also criticized Mironov's election to the post of the upper house's speaker, calling it a "big political mistake for both the country and the president."

"A man that nobody knows should not have been elected to the No. 3 post in the country," he argued.

Mironov, 48, a political unknown in Moscow, served in the chamber as a representative of Putin's native St. Petersburg.

On Wednesday, the Federation Council voted 150-2 with four abstentions to overwhelmingly support Mironov's nomination to replace political heavyweight Stroyev.

The former chairman had to leave as he could no longer simultaneously hold the posts of a regional governor and parliamentary speaker.

Analysts say that Mironov's candidacy was backed by the Putin administration in its bid to secure the president's grip on power by installing loyalists to all key posts in each branch of power.

Officially, the proposal to nominate Mironov for speaker came from the chamber's executive body, the Council, but there is little doubt that the move was orchestrated by the Kremlin.

On Friday, Nemtsov warned that Putin was making many appointments "on the principle of loyalty, creating a certain clanship."

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