Prime Minister Putin plans to be in charge during a period that could throw up tough challenges on the domestic and international fronts.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's decision to run for President in next year's elections raised few eyebrows in Russia. It is seen as Mr. Putin's response to new domestic and international challenges and the lack-lustre performance of his protégé, President Dmitry Medvedev.
The carefully choreographed news of the forthcoming switch of roles in the Kremlin tandem was broken at a congress of the ruling party, United Russia, on September 24. Mr. Medvedev asked the party to support Mr. Putin's candidacy for President in the March election, while Mr. Putin proposed that Mr. Medvedev lead United Russia's list of candidates for the parliamentary election in December “in line with a recent tradition” and form a new “youthful and energetic government.”
Defending his decision to step aside, Mr. Medvedev said that Mr. Putin was “the most authoritative politician” in Russia, and enjoyed “higher ratings.”
Mr. Putin has dominated the Russian political scene even after he stepped down as President in 2008 upon reaching the two-consecutive-term limit and propelled Mr. Medvedev, 42, to the Kremlin throne. The change of guard generated hopes that the baton was passed to a younger generation leader who would carry on Russia's modernisation relying on the helping hand of ex-President-turned-Prime Minister Putin. However, Mr. Medvedev chose not to use sweeping presidential powers to firm up his grip on power and resigned himself to the role of a junior partner in the ruling tandem.
“Even after stepping into the President's shoes Medvedev remained an official in Mr. Putin's administration,” said an anonymous Kremlin source.
Mr. Medvedev's presidency has not been marred by any major mistakes or failures, but it has also been short on achievements. He was rich on promises of but pathetically poor on delivery. His high-flying initiatives to launch all-round modernisation, combat corruption, and promote a genuine multi-party system have largely remained on paper.
Mr. Putin, on the other hand, has retained the lock on power and broadened his political base. He took leadership in the dominant United Russia party and in the run-up to the December parliamentary elections created an All-Russia People's Front, a movement focused on supporting, not so much the ruling party as its leader. Mr. Putin's high-profile activity in recent months prompted speculation that he had embarked on a presidential campaign long before it was declared open. Mr. Putin, who will turn 59 next month, burned rubber on a racing circuit in a Formula One car, went scuba diving in the sea to retrieve two Byzantine-era jars, and roared to a rally on a Harley Davidson trike in the company of the Night Wolves bikers. This made a stark contrast with the passivity of his younger partner. When the respected Levada pollster asked Russians last month to take a guess on who would be Russia's President in 2012 they voted two to one for Mr. Putin.
Nevertheless, Mr. Medvedev's decision to step aside disappointed his supporters who hoped that during his second term he would push forward his modernisation agenda. Some found it insulting that he failed to explain his reasons to his constituency.
“Doesn't he wish to explain to his fellow citizens, those who trusted him to be the guarantor of their rights and freedoms, to be their commander-in-chief, why he suddenly decided to voluntarily leave his post and refuse to run for re-election?” a Moscow radio journalist wrote on his blog, adding that Mr. Medvedev showed “extreme disrespect” for over 50 million Russians who voted him in as President in 2008.
Mr. Putin's comeback as President will be welcomed by many Russians, who saw their living standards rise steadily during his first two terms in office and who found Mr. Medvedev's record unimpressive. A car dealer from Voronezh expressed the general feeling when he quipped: “For the past three years Russia has lived without a real President and this is bad.”
There is little doubt that Mr. Putin will be elected President next March. He remains Russia's most popular politician and has full control over Parliament and the electronic media. The Putin-Medvedev tandem has demonstrated good teamwork over the past three-and-a-half years and there is no reason why it should not continue, even if in a changed configuration. The two leaders steered Russia safely through the economic crisis of 2008 and maintained the social and political stability that was the hallmark of Mr. Putin's presidency in 2000-2008. But the coming years are expected to throw up new, tougher challenges. And this may be a key factor behind Mr. Putin's decision to shift back to the top Kremlin job.
If global recession strikes again as many economists warn, it will hit Russia harder than during the 2008 downturn. With oil, gas and minerals accounting for 80 per cent of Russia's export earnings, its economic health critically depends on commodity prices that are expected to decline in coming years. The huge safety cushion that the government had built during the oil windfall in the 2000s is largely depleted today. Ahead of the new election season the government has dramatically increased spending on defence, pensions and salaries. Russia's Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin warned this would create a gaping hole in the budget in coming years. He said Russia could only balance its budget if oil stayed above the incredible $110 per barrel. The government faces a choice of either raising the pension age or taxes. Mr. Putin admitted last week that the economy may have to be given “bitter pills” of austerity measures.
In his criticism of the Kremlin's spending policy the Finance Minister went as far as to say that he would refuse to work in a Cabinet led by Mr. Medvedev after the proposed leadership rearrangement. This forced the duumvirate to sack the rebellious Minister, who is widely believed to have eyed the post of Prime Minister for himself. But his revolt underlined the gravity of the situation.
Sitting in the Prime Minister's chair during a looming economic storm could critically undermine Mr. Putin's popularity. So he chose Mr. Medvedev for the role of a likely fall guy.
The shifting global scenarios are also dictating the need for stronger leadership in the Kremlin. Mr. Medvedev presided over an upsurge in relations between Russia and the United States, which enabled the two countries to sign a major nuclear arms reductions treaty last year. However, the “reset” has since run into rough waters over U.S. plans to build missile defences in Europe and the NATO military intervention in Libya.
Analysts think the next presidential term may be crucial in deciding Russia's place in the world.
“The next few years will witness the final collapse of inherited [international] structures, and a potential series of chaotic developments and regional crises,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the Russia in Global Affairs journal.
“The next President needs to be a strong chess player” because “his primary purpose will be to minimise risks and think thoroughly before taking any bold action.”
Critics say Mr. Medvedev's handling of foreign policy, about the only sphere where he enjoyed relative autonomy from his senior tandem partner, was not up to the mark. He was blamed in particular for allowing the United States to ram through the Security Council resolution on Libya whose vague language gave the West a free hand to topple the regime of Muammar Qadhafi. Mr. Medvedev has been accused of putting all his eggs in the “reset” basket and going too far in appeasing the U.S. on Iran, Libya and Syria. While Mr. Putin's return is unlikely to lead to any major shifts in foreign policy, he is expected to follow a more balanced course.
The biggest question mark that hangs over Mr. Putin's future presidency is whether he will finally undertake much needed political and economic reforms to diversify Russia's economy away from oil and gas and to promote political competition. Sceptics point out that it was under Mr. Putin's rule that a system of massive corruption and cronyism has flourished in Russia and he will hardly have the will and resources to dismantle it. They think that Mr. Putin has no ambition other than to stay in power as long as he can. During Mr. Medvedev's presidency the tandem changed the Constitution to extend the presidential term from four to six years. This opens the door for another 12 years of President Putin. By the time he completes his fourth term in office he would have ruled Russia for 24 years, longer than any other Russian ruler in recent history except Joseph Stalin.
Optimists, however, say Mr. Putin will have no choice but to pursue reforms because Russia's heavily monopolised oil-dependent economy can no longer sustain dynamic growth and meet people's rising demand for higher living standards.