MOSCOW Russian President Vladimir Putin could run for re-election in next year's presidential vote if he resigns early to get around a ban on serving three consecutive terms, a lobbyist close to the Kremlin has said.
Putin has said he will step down next year and let someone else take over. His spokesman said that has not changed. But a source with Kremlin links told Reuters the option of exploiting legal loopholes is being pushed by parts of his entourage.
Under that scenario, Putin could announce as early as this month that he is stepping down ahead of term. His prime minister, Viktor Zubkov, would become caretaker president and Putin would run in the scheduled March 2008 presidential vote.
The question of what Putin will do next is preoccupying Russians and foreign investors because he wields huge personal power in his vast, nuclear-armed country, many people see him as a guarantor of stability and he has no clear successor.
Western companies as well as foreign governments, for all their reservations about his democratic credentials, also see him as a "known figure" with whom they can deal.
"It is quite possible for Putin to run as a candidate for the presidency in the 2008 elections," Alexander Shokhin, the head of Russia's biggest business lobby, told Russia's Itogi magazine this week.
"And there is no need to change the constitution," he said. "Gaps remain in the law."
Russia's constitution states that "one and the same person cannot occupy the post of President of the Russian Federation for more than two consecutive terms."
Analysts have speculated Putin could sidestep this by making way for a new president and returning at the next election in 2012, or sooner if his successor does not serve a full term.
Another option is for him to step down but retain influence in another capacity, possibly as prime minister.
But the scenario outlined by Shokhin and others would allow Putin to return to his old job after an interval of just weeks.
A federal law on presidential elections states that a president who leaves office before the end of term "cannot be put forward as a candidate in elections called in connection with him ceasing to exercise his powers ahead of schedule."
This is where the loophole lies. The law contains no restriction on a president running in elections which were not called as a result of his leaving office early.
If Putin steps down after the date of the presidential vote is officially announced -- this is expected to happen on November 26 -- he will be taking part in a scheduled election.
"The task has been set to ensure a third term. From a number of options, one has been chosen that will use this loophole," said the source with links to the presidential administration.
But the source added: "Putin has not taken a final decision ... This is not being done by Putin but by his entourage. Putin himself is undecided."
A December 2 parliamentary election, in which Putin is running as head of his United Russia party slate, could provide him with an opportunity to step down.
Most observers have been working on the assumption that Putin will turn down his seat after the vote and see out his presidential term, because the law forbids combining both jobs.
Asked to comment on the new scenario, Kremlin deputy spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: "This is probably a question for the constitutional court or the election commission. It is not for us to judge."
"We proceed from the position of the president, who is categorically against any change to the constitution and who has said repeatedly that he will leave the post of president."
A quick Putin comeback could be popular with voters. Opinion polls put his popularity rating at about 70 percent, and suggest many people want him to retain a powerful role.
Analysts said the new scenario was most likely floated in the media by one of the rival groups in Putin's entourage. They say ultimately, only Putin knows what will happen over the next few weeks and he has been giving little away.
(Editing by Ralph Boulton)