Nick Paton Walsh

A CLEAR majority of Russians think Vladimir Putin should serve a third presidential term, and that the constitution should be changed to allow him to do so, according to an opinion poll.

Asked whether the constitution should be changed to allow Mr. Putin a third term, 59 per cent said yes and 29 per cent said no, the Yuri Levada Analytical Centre reported in a poll of 1,600 people across Russia. The idea is significantly more appealing to voters than it was in September.

The Levada centre poll comes amid persistent speculation that Mr. Putin could be coaxed into considering another term. The constitution limits presidents to two consecutive terms, meaning Mr. Putin would have to stand down before the presidential vote in March 2008.

Mr. Putin has maintained a high popularity rating, with 77 per cent approval of his performance. The poll gave his two favoured successors, Dmitri Medvedev, and Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov, 10 per cent and 7 per cent respectively. The poll has a 3 per cent margin of error.

Despite his overwhelming popularity and domination of Russia's managed democracy, Mr. Putin, a former KGB agent, is thought to have decided against a third term. But the idea resonates in the media, even as an anti-corruption drive continues to claim the heads of senior officials.

The long-serving prosecutor-general, Vladimir Ustinov, has been fired and several Cabinet Ministers are rumoured to be on the way out.

The Russian media say the changes are aimed at restoring the balance between liberals and hardliners in the administration and preserving Mr. Putin's place as the guardian of stability and future kingmaker.

Sergei Markov, an analyst close to the Kremlin, said: "Putin has decided he will not run for President in 2008." He said the subject was constantly stirred up in the media by rival groups for whom the idea was beneficial in different ways.