Putin announces plan to return as Russian president

All-action premier is moving back into the top job – and could hold power for almost as long as Stalin

Moscow

He's back. Not that he ever went away. In an announcement that many observers have believed to be inevitable for some time, Russia's action-man prime minister Vladimir Putin put an end to speculation and confirmed that he will stand for election as president next year.

His success is almost guaranteed, and the decision paves the way for the tough-talking leader to rule Russia until 2024.

Mr Putin was president between 2000 and 2008 but, due to constitutional restrictions on consecutive terms, had to step aside and allow Dmitry Medvedev into the Kremlin. After four years when he was rarely out of the limelight as PM, Mr Putin is clearly hungry to be de jure the most powerful man in the country again, rather than simply de facto.

With presidential-term limits now raised to six years, he could rule for a further 12 years until 2024. This would make the Putin era in Russia almost as long as Josef Stalin's.

In a carefully choreographed set of speeches at the congress of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, in Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium yesterday, Mr Putin first suggested that President Medvedev should head the party list for parliamentary elections in December. Mr Medvedev agreed, saying he would happily become prime minister if the party were successful, and suggested that Mr Putin should be the next president.

Rapturous applause rang out in the hall, as Mr Putin returned to the podium to accept the "suggestion", sporting a purple tie and a wry smirk.

Liberal Russians took to Twitter to voice their dismay. Mr Medvedev has espoused liberal rhetoric during his four years in the presidency, but the manner in which yesterday's announcement was made will dispel any lingering doubts that his Kremlin role was anything other than a seat-warming act for Mr Putin.

There have been a number of signs over the summer that Mr Putin was plotting a return to the top job, notably a sharp increase in the trademark televised stunts pulled off by the Russian PM.

Famous for flying planes, judo manoeuvres, tracking down wild animals and topless horse-riding – macho stunts bolstering his image among the electorate – Mr Putin has recently veered off into the realm of the surreal.

In one outing, much giggled at in the Russian blogosphere, he visited the site of an archaeological expedition in the Black Sea and, during a dive, managed to "discover" two perfectly preserved ancient urns. Last month, he donned an all-black outfit and, mounted on a Harley-Davidson, led a gang of bikers accompanied by blaring rock music.

Which one of the ruling "tandem" will run for president has been the main topic of debate in Russian political discourse for the past year, with even those in the inner circle of government claiming to be in the dark.

Mr Medvedev apologised yesterday for keeping everybody waiting so long for the announcement, and said that the decision had been carefully thought out and discussed between the two men. "The most important thing is that the choice always remains with you, with the whole people," said Mr Medvedev, apparently without irony.

The presidential elections will be next March, and Mr Putin is likely to sail through them, enjoying a level of popular support that is slipping but still high, thanks to blanket promotion on state-controlled television and a lack of real opposition.

All this means that Russia, and the world, will be seeing a lot more of Mr Putin in the coming years.

"Putin has a team of people working on his image, and they are very professional," said a former Kremlin adviser, Alexander Voloshin, during a recent briefing. "But to a great degree, Putin is his own director."

And now the show will go on for six – possibly 12 – more years.

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