Putin holds all keys to power in Russia

? Put Iowa and New Hampshire on the back burner for a moment: Election fever also grips Russia, which chooses a new Duma in December and a president in March.

Pollsters, analysts and Duma members are furiously debating two questions: What exact outcome will Vladimir Putin choose for these elections? And when will he communicate it to them and to the world? The only sure thing is that Putin will keep everyone guessing as long as it suits him.

This is not the way the Kremlin portrays its version of “sovereign democracy,” but it is not far from it either. When I encounter Vladislav Surkov, President Putin’s chief political strategist and ideologue, he assures me that Russian democracy “is going in the right direction,” pauses two beats, smiles and adds, “step by step.”

Surkov, an urbane and swift political thinker who could hold his own in any system, has been a key figure in the Kremlin’s successful effort to build sham political parties to fragment the Duma election results and then make sure this show parliament does exactly as Putin wants. In Russia today, politics is “the Kremlin by other means,” Muscovites tell a visiting American.

Putin’s total domination of the political landscape is remarkable by any standards, including those of landslide-winning democrats in the West or Third World despots. Putin is “the Decider” in ways that George W. Bush can only imagine.

Even more startling is the fact that most Russians have willingly ceded all this power to him without having any clear picture of how he intends to use it. Trained by the KGB to hide his emotions, his plans and even his identity, Putin now hides his intentions from his nation and the world while his rule floats comfortably on a sea of energy reserves and revenue.

The president builds up potential successors and casts them aside to bring forward, without explanation, new unknown candidates. He hints that he will crown himself prime minister instead of changing the constitution so he could serve a third presidential term – and then lets aides suggest that the prime minister’s job is not big enough for Putin’s talents after all.

It is accepted here that the choices of the next president, prime minister and governing party are solely Putin’s to make. The two looming elections will serve as a single referendum on Putin’s past and future control, in whatever form he decides it will take.

He keeps other nations guessing too. Putin tells Bush, France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and other foreign leaders in private that, like them, he wants to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Then without warning he publicly denies that there is evidence that Iran seeks a nuclear weapon and leaves a gulping Sarkozy to explain the contradiction at a joint press conference.

(The Kremlin is under no illusion about Iran’s nuclear intentions, I was told here. But Putin doubts that Tehran will be able to turn enriched uranium into a usable weapon. However implausible this view seems, Putin’s statement was intended to buy time and space for a negotiated outcome. Or so it is guessed here.)

In Kennebunkport three months ago, Putin and Bush privately agreed that U.S.-Russia relations would not be made hostage to their overlapping election seasons. Since then, Putin has voiced a constant stream of complaints, demands and even threats against the U.S. and its allies that have solidified his public approval ratings, which reach toward 80 percent.

This is no longer merely the trained espionage agent whom I once described as “the man with the mirror” to convey his ability to get others to see him as they wanted him to appear – to look, for example, into his eyes and see a good soul.

This is Putin Unplugged, a domineering and entrenched ruler seeking revenge for the Bush administration’s early decision to marginalize Russia by abrogating or ignoring arms-control treaty commitments to Moscow.

Most leaders keep options open as long as possible, especially when avoiding lame-duck status. But Putin openly enjoys toying with allies and opponents. He continues playing the game long after he has won, for it is the game itself that he loves.

Putin has not kept what I think of as the Kennebunkport Kompact. But Bush will be unable to uphold it in the U.S. campaign season. Who lost Russia is an unfair and idiotic question in many ways. But I doubt that the Democratic (and perhaps Republican) nominee will refrain for asking it.