Russian President Vladimir Putin may have dropped a major hint on Thursday about not running again in 2024, with a cryptic remark that the wording in the constitution on presidential mandates should be amended, observers said.
One of the key intrigues as Putin, 67, held his annual marathon press conference was whether the Russian leader believes that his fourth term in office should be his last.
By law, a Russian president, whose mandate is now six years long, cannot serve more than two successive terms.
After succeeding Boris Yeltsin and serving two terms from 2000 to 2008, Putin got around this by handing the presidency to his ally Dmitry Medvedev in 2008 and then serving four years as prime minister.
Despite huge opposition protests Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012.
But on Thursday Putin said the word "successive" could be removed from the country's basic law, a move that could rule out any such job swap scenario in 2024 when his current mandate ends.
"As for previous changes to the constitution, as far as I know they were linked only to the number of terms. What should we do?
"As for the terms, remove the word 'successive'. Your humble servant served two successive terms and then stepped down and had the constitutional right to return to the post of president... But some of our political scientists and activists do not like this and maybe this could be removed, possibly."
- 'No new term' -
Putin's aides have, according to some reports, been looking for ways to prolong his time in power by amending the constitution or finding a new post for him. Analysts have pointed out there is so far no obvious successor.
Putin indicated he was aware of the debate.
"Of course, I am aware of the discussions that are currently going on," he said, adding that any changes to the constitution should be made "in a careful manner" and only after a thorough debate in society.
Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of Russian broadcaster RT and well-connected to the Kremlin, said his comments were proof that Putin would not run for a new presidential term.
"If anyone had any doubts about whether the chief will seek another presidential term, he will not," Simonyan said on Twitter.
The Bell, an independent news portal, said Putin's comments were perhaps the most important takeaway of his annual news conference.
"This will mean only one thing: there will be no further job swaps and one person will no longer be able to work as president for more than two consecutive terms that is 12 years," it quoted Grigory Vaipan of the Institute of Law and Public Policy as saying.
Russian President Vladimir Putin may have dropped a hint about his political future at his end-of year press conference