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A new draft law in Russia giving immunity to former presidents and their families has rekindled speculation about Vladimir Putin’s future, months after he pushed through constitutional changes that could allow him to stay in office through 2036.

Some around the Kremlin say the bill has spurred quiet discussion of the possibility that Putin might not linger nearly that long. Backers of the draft, which is expected to become law within days, say it’s just part of the Russian leader’s effort to build a less personalized system to succeed him — whenever he decides it’s time to step down.

Putin, whose 21-year rule already makes him Russia’s longest-serving leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, has shown no sign that he’s going anywhere. The president defended removing term limits for himself in a 4½ hour annual news conference on Thursday, looking vigorous and confident throughout. “The stable development of the nation is worth a lot,” he said, adding that he hadn’t decided yet whether to run again in the next presidential election in 2024.

The regular revival of speculation about the 68-year-old leader’s future highlights how central Putin remains to the Russian state and the challenge he faces in trying to engineer a transition to a new president in the future. The constitutional changes approved in a referendum in July exempted him from term limits that would have made his current one his last.

Lame-duck risk

But some around the Kremlin are speculating that Putin might try to engineer a move to a new post that would allow him to retain the reins of power without the day-to-day burden of the presidency, according to three people familiar with the discussions, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue.

“Putin’s main goal is not to turn into a lame-duck leader. If he were to give up the presidency early, he’d avoid that scenario,” said Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist at the State University of Management who has studied Russia’s elite for the last three decades.

The idea that the Kremlin boss might resign unexpectedly has surfaced several times in the past, only to be proven wrong.

“The elite’s getting overly nervous, but they’re supposed to worry,” said Konstantin Kostin, a former Kremlin official who now heads a think tank that works with the government. He said he’s confident Putin has no plans to step down in the foreseeable future. “We have a mono-centric system in which a huge amount depends on who has the top post.”

After falling to record lows in some polls earlier this year, Putin’s popularity ratings have picked up in recent months, even as incomes stagnate and the economy struggles to recover from the impact of the coronavirus. But the Kremlin is taking no chances ahead of parliamentary elections set for next fall, pushing through a series of new laws that would tighten already-sweeping restrictions on opposition groups and public protests. A poisoning attack on opposition leader Alexey Navalny — blamed by the West on the Kremlin, which denies any role — has left its most visible critic in effective exile in Germany.

Putin age

Around Russia, long-serving leaders have struggled to secure their rule. Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko, a close Kremlin ally, is facing unprecedented and unrelenting popular protests against his efforts to remain in office. In Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, 80, has sought to retain a role as supreme leader after giving up the presidency to a trusted lieutenant last year.

Putin unexpectedly highlighted his own age this week, saying he hadn’t taken the Russian-made vaccine he and his government have touted because it hasn’t been fully tested for people over 60. A number of other senior officials above that threshold have already been shown on national television getting it, however.

Putin has shown signs of growing fatigue with his presidential duties after two decades at the helm, said Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin adviser.

“Putin already several times thought about leaving office, though remaining a player in the game,” said Pavlovsky. “This thought has been in his head for some time and it doesn’t appear to be connected to any illness.”

Even with protections written into law, true security for Putin will come only from putting loyalists into key positions who will ensure the unwritten rule against persecuting former leaders that’s held since the Soviet era persists.

“The guarantee for him won’t be the law but the tradition and the absence of a counter-elite scenario,” says analyst Mikhail Vinogradov. “The elite in Russia understands that to throw the previous leader under the bus won’t benefit anyone.”

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