Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, on Thursday dodged a direct question on whether he intends to stay in power beyond 2024 but indicated that he was open to discussing amendments to the constitution that could allow him to rule indefinitely.
Mr Putin, whose approval ratings are close to 70 per cent, has occupied the Kremlin for four terms since he was first elected in 2000 but had to step down in 2008 because of constitutional limitations.
There is currently no legal way for the 67-year-old president to run again in 2024 when his fourth term ends, and speculation has been rife about what could be done to keep him in the top spot.
One of the options would be to change the number of presidential terms written in the constitution or hand more powers to the government, parliament or a new body for Mr Putin to lead.
Throughout his marathon press conference on Thursday, Mr Putin was asked several times if he was going to stay in power or if he was supportive of an idea to devolve powers to the government or parliament.
Mr Putin stopped short of saying if he intended to stay in charge beyond 2024 but said he was aware of ongoing discussions about reconsidering the roles of the president, government and parliament that could reshuffle the Russian power structure.
“All of that could be done but only after a solid preparation and a thorough discussion in society,” he told the press conference in Moscow which ran for more than four hours.
Mr Putin’s vague remarks have been widely read as the start of a Kremlin-led public debate on possible succession strategies.
“Putin doesn’t want to give answers: he wants to leave this question hanging in the air,” Tatyana Stanovaya, nonresident scholar at the Moscow Carnegie Center and head of the R.Politik political analysis firm, told the Daily Telegraph.
Asked about possible changes to the Constitution, Mr Putin said he would support the idea of capping the number of presidential terms to just two, without the mention of two consecutive terms that allowed him to run for a third term in 2012.
To some, Mr Putin’s remarks about the terms cap sounded like an indication that he will not seek re-election in 2024.
“He is not running,” Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of state-owned TV channel RT, tweeted during the press conference.
Stanovaya said, however, that this doesn’t mean that Mr Putin will retire at the end of his term. She added: “he has distanced himself from the future reform... Let’s see what society says.”
This would leave it up to parliament and the courts to come up with a new political framework for him.