Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin moved on Saturday to return to the presidency, in which he could remain until 2024, a tenure comparable in length with that of Stalin. Putin served as president from 2000 to 2008 but was limited by the Constitution to only two consecutive terms.
President Dmitri Medvedev announced at a United Russia Party convention in Moscow that he would step aside for Putin, and will assume the position of prime minister after the March 2012 presidential election that Putin is highly likely to win, given the Kremlin's control over the media and political parties. Putin's popularity remains high, as compared to his ruling United Russia Party.
Analysts have long postulated that Medvedev was just a "seat warmer" while Putin served as prime minister. Both men publicly said that four years ago, when Medvedev started off as president, they had already made a job swap deal.
Report: Putin Once More Moves to Assume Top Job in Russia (New York Times, 24 Sep 2011)
Report: Putin Announces Run For President in 2012 (VOA, 24 Sep 2011)
Putin's bid to secure the presidency, while supported by many in his party, faces opposition. A senior member of the Russian government, finance minister Aleksei Kudrin, said he would refuse to stay on under the planned leadership shuffle. He said he would no longer work in the government if Medvedev became prime minister, alluding to Medvedev's irresponsible spending decisions, particularly Medvedev's consent of a $65 billion increase in military spending over three years. Kudrin claimed that the increase would equal Russia's total expenditure on education at all levels.
Kudrin's remarks were the first to suggest that the leadership swap could lead to turmoil and a reorganisation at the highest levels of government, injecting uncertainty into the new government structure. Kudrin has been a key player on Putin's governing team for 20 years, and foreign investors consider him to be an important advocate of privatisation and other reforms, as well as a hedge against financial disorder.
Government officials quickly played down the seriousness of Mr. Kudrin's criticism of Mr. Medvedev, with Putin's spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, saying that Kudrin would "remain on Mr. Putin's team."
Other critics charge that Putin's return would bring forth stagnation and chaos. Prominent critics, like former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, say his return could undermine stability unless he can shake the country out of economic inertia. Even Medvedev warned of stagnation in Russia on Saturday, just before he announced his ceding of the presidency to Putin. Khodorkovsky said that with Putin as president, "The hopes for internal reform of the current system of power would disappear."
Supporters of Putin credit him with restoring order after the chaotic years of Yeltsin's rule, and for giving Russia the longest economic boom in a generation.
Report: Russian Finance Chief Publicly Objects to Leader Swap (New York Times, 25 Sep 2011)
Report: Putin's return stokes fear of stagnation in Russia (Reuters, 25 Sep 2011)
Russia's relations with Western countries will also be cast in doubt once Putin returns as president. Under Putin, it is expected that Russia will be wary of the fall of autocratic Arab regimes and become even more hostile towards Western international activism. This will also complicate the Obama administration's efforts to psuh forward arms-control and trade agreements, and will further raise suspicions among US policy and lawmakers about Russia's intentions.
Medvedev is viewed in the US as more conciliatory compared to Putin and his confrontational style. US President Barack Obama had forged a close working relationship with President Medvedev, seeing him as a counterweight to Putin. However, after Saturday's announcement, the White House has played down the impact of Putin's return and its implications for President Obama's "reset" in relations with Moscow. "The reset has always been about national interests and not individual personalities," said Tommy Vietor, White House National Security Council spokesman.
Report: Nothing changes with Vladimir Putin's presidential announcement (Telegraph, 26 Sep 2011)
Report: Putin Return Complicates U.S. Policy (Wall Street Journal, 26 Sep 2011)