Putin to return as Russian president

Charles Clover in Moscow – FT.com September 24, 2011

Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will return to his post as president next year, after he and President Dmitry Medvedev announced they were switching jobs.

The announcement was made on Saturday at the annual conference of United Russia, the party that controls two-thirds of Russia’s parliament. It put to rest intrigue over Mr Putin’s next move.

Mr Putin is now likely to win two consecutive 6 year terms, giving him a total of quarter century in power from the time he took over the Kremlin in 2000. He remains Russia’s strongest political figure despite stepping aside for four years.

The announcement confirms the long-held impression that Mr Medvedev was only ever a place holder for Mr Putin, who was constitutionally prohibited from a third term after serving as president from 2000-2008.

Mr Putin started proceedings, telling delegates that Mr Medvedev would succeed him in heading the United Russia party’s election list in December 4 parliamentary elections. He also announced Mr Medvedev’s candidacy for prime minister, which Mr Medvedev accepted.

Mr Medvedev in turn said: “Taking into account my agreement to lead the party’s election list, I consider it correct to support the candidacy of Putin for the post of president of the country.”

He suggested the arrangement had been made as early as 2007, when Mr Putin had all but appointed Mr Medvedev as his temporary successor.

“What we have suggested to the congress, is a deeply thought out decision. Even more – we actually discussed this variant of events while we were first forming our comradely alliance” he said.

Putin said that the agreement “on who should do what” had been reached long ago.

Mr Putin aimed the rest of his speech at state workers, promising to raise their wages and give them federal land. United Russia is nicknamed “the party of bureaucrats” for its reliance on federal workers.

At one point the former KGB colonel raised his voice to be heard through a failing microphone. “I have not lost my commander’s voice!” he said.

The job switch surprises few in Moscow, where Mr Putin was the favourite to return to the presidency. However, the two men had remained coy on the subject, spinning out the intrigue for the previous three and a half years.

Putin’s return is likely to complicate Russia’s thawing relations with the West, particularly the US-Russia “reset” begun in 2009.

The reset was driven largely by a good personal relationship between Mr Medvedev and US President Barack Obama, and produced a new arms control treaty and US-Russia diplomatic co-operation in troubled areas of the Middle East.

“If Putin returns then I guess we will need another reset” joked a former high ranking Kremlin official earlier this month.

The news could turn Mr Medvedev into a lame duck who will struggle to be heard during his remaining 6 months in power.

Throughout Medvedev’s four year term, Putin was seen as the country’s power broker and had veto over most of Mr Medvedev’s decisions. The two publicly disagreed only a handful of times – last spring, for example, Mr Medvedev slapped Putin down over his opposition to Nato’s operation in Libya.

However, they agree on most issues. Putin is believed to want to continue the liberal economic reforms begun under Mr Medvedev, including privatisation.

Mr Medvedev’s switch to prime minister will give him the chance to continue modernising Russia’s economy.

“I expect Putin will establish a very pro-business and pro-reform cabinet” said Chris Weafer, chief strategist at Troika Dialog, the Moscow investment bank.

But opposition politicians have long criticised the prospect of Putin’s return to presidency, saying it amounts to the old Soviet practice of staying in power for decades. Putin’s return makes it clear that Russia revolves around a dominant cult of personality, and is moving farther than ever from a society based on institutions.

“Modernisation in the contemporary world is first and foremost about the renewal of power. The latest permutation of the ‘tandem’ has nothing to do with modernisation” said Sergei Mitrokhin, leader of the Yabloko party.

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