Russians seem resigned to Putin's big return


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The Independent Online

A few were ecstatic; some were distraught and said they would emigrate. But away from the flag-waving of the United Russia party congress and the hand-wringing of the liberals on Twitter, most Russians simply shrugged at the news that Vladimir Putin is on his way back to the Kremlin.

The tough-talking Prime Minister still enjoys high levels of public support, and the frequency with which he has appeared on television over the past four years means Russians hardly noticed that he had left the top job anyway. For some months, a return has seemed likely, even probable. On Saturday, Mr Putin confirmed this, saying he would stand in March elections, while Dmitry Medvedev would swap places with him and become the next Prime Minister. With presidential terms now at six years, Mr Putin could be in power until 2024.

Russia's only 24-hour news channel, instead of launching into debates about what lay in store for Russia, switched to a programme about cosmonauts just minutes after the Prime Minister had finished his speech. But among the politically active segment of the population, there was nonetheless surprise at what they had been expecting all along, not least at the way Mr Medvedev had capitulated.

Mr Medvedev has said on several occasions that he wanted a second term. He has a decent level of public support, and no major scandals that blot his record. It is a rare sight to see a President in such a position relinquish his post so easily. But then not many Presidents have Vladimir Putin breathing down their necks. It was widely accepted that, if Mr Putin decided on a return, there was nothing that Mr Medvedev could do about it, and his willingness to be a seat-warmer may well have been part of the reason Mr Putin selected him to become president four years ago. "The season of political suicides has reached its culmination," wrote the political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky in Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper yesterday. "The central figure of the last three-and-a-bit years has just thrown himself out of the narrow window of Russian politics. A man we are still supposed to call the President..."

In a further blow to Mr Medvedev, the long-standing Finance Minister, Alexei Kudrin, said he would refuse to serve in a post-election government that had Mr Medvedev as Prime Minister. "I don't see myself in a new government," said Mr Kudrin, who is on a visit to Washington.

"I think that the disagreements I have [with Mr Medvedev] will not allow me to join this government." Mr Kudrin is a long-standing ally of Mr Putin and many had tipped him for the prime-ministerial role himself. Analysts said that it was still possible that announcing Mr Medvedev as the next Prime Minister was a ruse to avoid him being a lame duck for the remaining months of his presidency, and that the real Prime Minister could be someone else, possibly Mr Kudrin.

There has been little public dissent over Mr Putin's decision from top officials, who will now be manoeuvring themselves to make sure they are part of a new Putin administration.