Rock-star ceremony for 'president Putin'
The lights blazed, music blared and thousands cheered at a venue that in recent years has hosted concerts by the likes of Bono and Madonna.
But this time Moscow's massive Luzhniki sports complex was not hosting an international rock star but the de facto nomination of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's return to the Kremlin for a third term.
Some 11,000 members of the United Russia party saw at first hand the stunning announcement by President Dmitry Medvedev that he was ready to surrender the Kremlin to the Russian strongman, and Putin's swift acceptance.
The announcement may have been unexpected but the choreography was as needle-sharp as Russia's renowned ballet companies and Medvedev and Putin took turns giving speeches before making a joint appearance at the podium.
They had made a dramatic joint entrance after the congress got underway, receiving a rapturous reception from delegates who stood up and waved Russian flags.
Then the Russian national anthem sounded, the same stirring tune that was the anthem of the Soviet Union and restored by Putin with different words but written by the same lyricist as before.
Celebrities including former Olympic wrestling champion Alexander Karelin and actor Vladimir Mashkov gave patriotic speeches. "Russia has power, ideas but above all a leader," Mashkov intoned in a clear reference to Putin.
To show the people were not forgotten, a miner from the southern region of Rostov took the microphone but overcome by nerves lost the flow of his words and pulled his notes from his pocket.
Meanwhile, an articulate young woman from the countryside, fearlessly told Russia's dominant party that the country had a "great future" and painted a vision of "gas pipelines, water pipes and Internet access in villages."
That a major announcement was in store was clear from the moment Putin said he and Medvedev had long ago agreed what their future roles in Russian politics would be.
When Medvedev announced Putin should stand for president, the incumbent prime minister stood up from his seat, waving and facing all sections of the vast audience as he took in the applause.
Declaring the nomination to be a "great honour", Putin rapidly got back to the nitty gritty of business, giving a forty minute speech aimed at striking a chord with ordinary Russians concerned about their economic situation.
"It is absolutely realistic to make Russia in the next five years into one of the most powerful economies worldwide," said Putin, vowing that salaries would increase and the super-rich would be taxed at a higher rate.
Putin also proposed that Medvedev should head the list for United Russia in December parliamentary polls, a decision almost unanimously approved.
But oddly for a party known for his tight control and compared by critics to the Soviet-era community party, one mystery delegate had the temerity to vote against the proposal, with 582 in favour.
Apparently startled by the boldness of the lone delegate, ex-KBG agent Putin said: "And where is this person? Where is this dissident?"
When no-one in the audience raised his hand, he added: "Too bad. He should have shown his face." He appeared to be joking.
The congress may have wound up, but the working day for Russia's top duo was not over with Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych in town for thorny talks over gas prices.
Usually the pair do not meet international leaders together but this time was an exception with Medvedev and Putin jointly meeting Yanukovych for "informal" talks in a park in an evening show of harmony.
© 2011 AFP