VALDAI, Russia – President Vladimir Putin said Thursday he may run for a fourth presidential term in 2018, confirming the expectations of most Russians and frustrating those now working to restore free elections in Russia.
If Putin runs and wins, it would keep him in power for about a quarter century and make him the nation's longest-serving leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
Putin has largely rolled back on Russia's post-Soviet democratic achievements, sidelining the opposition, reducing the Parliament to a rubber stamp and establishing tight control over the media. He insisted that Russia, only two decades away from the fall of the Soviet Union, is determined to become a democracy, but would find its own path despite criticism from the West.
"The kind of government that Russia should have should be determined by Russian citizens and not by our esteemed colleagues from abroad," he said during an international conference, an annual event attended by Russia experts from the U.S. and Europe.
Putin, who served two consecutive four-year terms starting in 2000, became prime minister in 2008 to observe a constitutional limit of two consecutive terms. He remained in charge as prime minister, with his loyal associate, Dmitry Medvedev, serving as a placeholder.
Medvedev initiated a law that extended the presidential term to six years, and Putin won a third term in 2012 despite major public protests in Moscow against his rule.
Putin addressed his future plans when challenged by former French Prime Minister Francois Fillon during the conference in Valdai, a wooded region in northwest Russia known for its pristine lakes. Fillon said he would not reveal whether he planned to run for president unless Putin answered the same question.
"And if I answer, will you?" Putin responded.
"We'll see," Fillon said.
"I don't exclude that," Putin said. To which Fillon added: "Me either."
Putin also took direct questions from Russian opposition figures about the protests and the rise of political activism they ushered in. He held out the possibility of amnesty for more than two dozen people arrested after clashes broke out with police during a protest on the eve of his inauguration. They face charges of mass unrest that could send them to prison for years.
Putin said he "would not exclude" an amnesty, but said he would only act after the courts had ruled.
During Wednesday's session of the four-day conference, the chief of Putin's staff and his deputy engaged in an unusual discussion with opposition politicians on whether they would be allowed not only to run in elections, but to win. It was a discussion that one of them, Ilya Ponomaryov, described as "cynical but sincere."
In response to the anti-Putin protests, which were set off by a fraud-tainted parliamentary election in late 2011, the Kremlin restored direct elections for regional leaders that Putin had abolished in 2004. This opened the way for protest leader Alexei Navalny to run in this month's Moscow mayoral race, where he finished a surprisingly strong second.
Ponomaryov, a member of the Kremlin-dominated parliament who joined the protest movement, said the message from Putin's staff was that the Kremlin would maintain a firm hold over elections for regional leaders, including for the Moscow mayoral race, but that elections for mayors of other cities would be fairly open.
"They want to create a sandbox and they consider the local level to be such a sandbox," he said in an interview on Thursday.
Ponomaryov announced plans to run next year for mayor of Novosibirsk, a major city in Siberia.
Vladimir Ryzhkov, a veteran politician now in opposition, called on Putin to allow free elections across the country to promote the rise of a new generation of talented politicians.
Putin said he shared this vision, while suggesting he has little confidence in the opposition. He said that while it was possible to ride the protest wave to success at the polls, this was no guarantee of bringing good government to the regions.