ELECTIONS IN UKRAINE AND BELARUS HIGHLIGHT PUTIN'S 2008 PREDICAMENT

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PARIS, October 15 (columnist Angela Charlton for RIA Novosti) - It's election season on Russia's western flank and the Kremlin is watching closely. This time big brother Russia has something to learn from little sisters Ukraine and Belarus.

Ukraine's presidential candidates are being poisoned and pelted and rumors are swirling of a lurking state of emergency, which would allow Leonid Kuchma to hold on to power after the Oct. 31 election. Alexander Lukashenko, meanwhile, doesn't need such drastic measures to retain his throne: Belarussians are certain to docilely approve Sunday's referendum allowing him to seek a third term.

Putin's Russia hovers between the bloody, blackened democracy of Ukraine and the predictable authoritarianism of Belarus. But when Putin's second and final term expires in 2008, he too will face the question of how or whether to step down. His Slavic neighbors offer two dubious models he would be advised to avoid.

Unlike Russia, both Ukraine and Belarus have already shown the world a democratic transfer of power. Yet in a profound disappointment to western democrats, both Kuchma and Lukashenko are loath to relinquish power the same way they won it a decade ago - in fair elections.

Lukashenko has been the more successful at securing his supremacy. He won Belarus' presidency through populism and Soviet nostalgia, and once in office he took that as a mandate to turn back the clock. He easily won a 1996 referendum changing the constitution to extend his term, then disbanded parliament and replaced it with his friends.

The current referendum campaign has been as unfair as the 1996 version. But it didn't have to be. Most of his compatriots really do love the Batka, despite his relentless suppression of dissent or because it's given them no choice. Lukashenko, just 50 years old now, may stave off the succession question for a generation.

Kuchma's romance with power has been more gradual and met more resistance. A lively parliamentary opposition and chaotic economy kept him occupied and in check during his first term. But eventually his inner circle and oligarch friends enriched and entrenched themselves and now the thought of ceding power terrifies them.

Kuchma sought and won a constitutional adjustment allowing him a third term, while simultaneously searching for an acceptable successor. But by the time Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych was anointed as Kuchma's candidate, his opponent Viktor Yushchenko - another ex-premier - had garnered a formidable following. Now it's too late for Kuchma to gracefully join the race. The campaign has been far from fair, but just two weeks before the vote, the outcome is thrillingly unclear.

So where does this leave Putin? Still undecided, apparently. He has distanced himself from the international outcast Lukashenko, yet taken steps of his own to consolidate power. Putin has made clear his support for Kuchma's protege but says he doesn't want to tinker with Russia's constitution.

Russians' skepticism of democracy - and democracy's ability to keep the country safe - is running high, as reflected in three key scenarios unfolding for 2008. All three assume that Putin and his entourage have too much invested in the political structure he's creating to hand it to a fairly elected successor.

In one version, the still-popular Putin endorses a hand-picked candidate, bestowing him with administrative resources and incessant coverage on the major television networks. Putin then officially steps down while his inner circle continues to call the shots. But this risks producing a successor who later turns on his sponsor. Putin himself rose to power as Boris Yeltsin's favorite, then shunted aside his ex-boss and purged the Yeltsinites from the Kremlin.

A safer scenario would involve amending the constitution to allow Putin a third term, or extend the current one, or abolish term limits altogether.

The most interesting scenario foresees Putin reducing the presidency to a figurehead role and getting himself chosen prime minister. Such an outcome would appear democratic and progressive. But it would require a reversal of Putin's policies fortifying presidential power. It would also require changing the constitution, which Putin says he doesn't want to do. The Constitutional Court has defied the Kremlin before.

Russia went through the same theorizing in the late 1990s as Yeltsin's departure loomed. Putin's persistent popularity and sturdy health make his future look much safer, since Russians are likely to welcome any efforts to keep him at the helm. His majority support in both houses of parliament assures legislative compliance with any fundamental changes, and regional leaders, now beholden to him for their posts, are unlikely to put up a fight.

In the West, however, any of these options would raise ire, at minimum. Western leaders have worked too hard to de-Sovietize Russia to sit mute while the country resists democratic succession. Yet international sanctions would have to be severe to make a difference. Putin does what he - not the outside world- says is best for Russia. It should surprise no one if Vladimir Vladimirovich stays in charge for long time.

(The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of this news agency.)

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