A chill can be felt in Moscow, and it is not just the early arrival of autumn. After months of convincing themselves that it is not going to happen, Russians are coming to grips with the certainty - in so far as anything in their country is certain - that, when the snow starts to melt in spring 2008 they will have a new president. Vladimir Putin, their surrogate Tsar for the past eight years, will no longer be master of the Kremlin.
Mary Dejevsky is a columnist and chief editorial writer for the Independent.
Also by Mary Dejevsky in openDemocracy:
"The west gets Putin wrong" (2 March 2005)
"Kyrgyzstan questions"(30 March 2005)
"Germany's travesty of democracy"(10 October 2005)
"Russia's NGO law: the wrong target" (15 December 2005)
"The new class society"(22 February 2006)
"Russia: what demographic crisis?" (27 September 2006)
The significance of the coming change of power can hardly be overestimated. If there is an orderly election with a choice of candidates - which is what Putin says he wants - this will be the first time in Russia's long and chequered history that power will have been transferred constitutionally and democratically.
Tsarist rule was autocratic and ended by a revolution. Elections in the Soviet Union were, until Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika in the late 1980s, not worthy of the name. But Gorbachev, for all his contribution to Russia's democratisation, never risked standing for election. Boris Yeltsin did, but his first election, in the aftermath of the Soviet break-up, was no more than an exercise in rubber-stamping, while his re-election in 1996 was - it is now acknowledged - engineered by his billionaire supporters and outsiders to prevent the communists regaining power.
Vladimir Putin, too, lacked democratic credentials. He was already acting president, appointed by the ailing Yeltsin, when he stood for his first election in 2000. His re-election in 2004 was also little more than a formality. For him now to relinquish power after two terms, as Russia's post-Soviet constitution requires, would be an achievement in itself. For him to resist the temptation to designate a successor - as he also insists he will - would be at least as epoch-making, if not more.
The deafness of desire
The very thought unsettles many Russians. For, unwilling though many outside Russia have been to accept this, to his fellow countrymen, Putin is an extraordinarily successful and popular president. His approval ratings for the past year have stood consistently around 70%. The only possible recent parallel internationally - a president who would have been re-elected by a landslide if the constitution had allowed him to stand - is Bill Clinton. But Putin is untarnished by the personal scandals that so complicated American feelings about Clinton.
Their enthusiasm for Putin and their inexperience in matters constitutional are reasons why many Russians assumed that Putin would "go on and on". Popularity, in their view, overrode constitutional considerations. If Putin - or the Russian parliament - had initiated an amendment to allow presidents a third term, there can be no doubt at all that it would have attracted enormous support. But they did not, and there is no sign that they will.
The assumption that Putin would stay in office beyond March 2008 has also been current outside Russia, but for quite different reasons. Whenever the Russian president said that he would not stand again, this was widely interpreted as posturing. In due course, many thought, his "true" authoritarian, not to say dictatorial, tendencies would prevail.
Among openDemocracy's many articles on Russia politics and society under Vladimir Putin:
Alena V Ledeneva, "How Russia really works" (16 January 2002)
Geoffrey Hosking, "Russians in the Soviet Union: rulers and victims" (26 June 2006)
Christoph Neidhart, "Vladimir Putin, ‘Soviet man' who missed class" (24 October 2006)
Ivan Krastev, "'Sovereign democracy', Russian-style" (16 November 2006)
Zygmunt Dzieciolowski , "How Russia is ruled" (14 March 2007)
Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "New Russia, old Russia" (5 April 2007)
Oksana Chelysheva, "Russia's iceberg: a Nizhny Novgorod report" (25 April 2007)
Tanya Lokshina, "Russian civil society: an appeal to Europe" (30 April 2007)
George Schöpflin, "Russia's reinvented empire" (3 May 2007)
Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "Tatyana Zaslavskaya's moment" (20 July 2007)
Armine Ishkanian, "Nashi: Russia's youth counter-movement" (30 August 2007)
Ivan Krastev, "Russia vs Europe: the sovereignty wars" (5 September 2007)
Together, the Russian desire for Putin to remain in office and the widespread western suspicion that he was no democrat fostered an almost universal deafness to his intentions. In fact, he has never so much as hinted at a desire to stay on. At the third annual meeting of the Kremlin-initiated Valdai Discussion Club in September 2006, Putin both revealed to not the gathering of international journalists and Russia experts that he would leave office, and explained why - because the constitution was "bigger than any one person", and because if the president flouted it, everyone else would be free to flout it, too.
A man of his word
When he met the same group at his summer residence on the Black Sea on 14 September, Putin was even more categorical. Appearing almost incredulous that anyone should still think it possible that he would be in the Kremlin beyond March, he said: "I have taken a firm decision (to leave office), I took it a long time ago, from the very beginning." He went on: "I'm profoundly convinced that no one should make any alteration to the structures of power" - i.e. amend the constitution in their favour - "while in office... Power should be stable, and I've done my utmost to make it so."
A little earlier in the conversation, he had drawn a distinction - as indeed some Russian political specialists have started to do - between designating a "successor" and securing a smooth "succession". "The fate of such a huge country as Russia", he said, should not depend on any one individual or group." The best way to guarantee this, he said, was to have a proper multi-party system, and he expressed regret that the development of real party politics was taking much longer than he had hoped.
Many Russians still expect Putin to indicate, or even name, a preferred successor, but this looks less and less likely. This does not mean, however, that he will not seek to influence the process. One theory is that he might encourage the prime minister he appointed on 12 September, 66-year-old Viktor Zubkov, to stand for the presidency and keep the seat warm, and so facilitate his return in four years.
In relaxed mood at his summer residence, Putin said nothing either to support or quash such speculation. He merely laughed it off, saying that it was a bit early to talk about coming back when he hadn't yet gone. Four years, he said, was a long time and "why try to guess what will happen?"
If Putin is taken at his word, however, any influence he tries to exert on the coming parliamentary and presidential elections could have less to do with personalities than with process. Another interpretation of Zubkov's appointment is that he wanted to keep open a presidential contest that had seemed to be closing around the first deputy prime minister and former defence minister, Sergei Ivanov.
An autumn chill
The machinations for the succession have indeed begun. But the possibility cannot be excluded that Putin will use his influence in coming months not to fix the process in favour of one individual, but to keep it open for as long as possible - and let the strongest contender win.
If this is what is happening, Russia is on the threshold of a crucial stage in the evolution of its democratic institutions. The paradox is that it is a threshold of uncertainty many Russians would prefer not to cross, at least not yet.
One Russian pundit, Vyacheslav Nikonov, who heads the Unity for Russia foundation, put it like this: "All the options facing us are bad. The constitution is changed (the law can be manipulated); the constitution is not changed (the will of the people is defied). Putin stays (he will breach the constitution); Putin goes (the people don't want him to). The next president is strong (parliamentary democracy will be weak); the next president is weak (nothing will get done, and a power struggle could ensue)."
His prognosis seems unnecessarily gloomy, but it reflects many Russians' apprehension about losing a leader who has put their country back onto the world map.