Russia awaits election season hints from ruling duo
President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Saturday make a rare joint appearance at the congress of Russia's ruling party as the countdown begins to legislative and presidential polls.
The two-day congress of United Russia -- which holds over two-thirds of the seats in the Russian parliament -- begins on Friday but the main event is set to be speeches by the top two on the second day.
The congress is due to discuss the party list for legislative elections on December 4 amid speculation that Putin -- United Russia's leader without being an actual member -- will head a list which may also include Medvedev.
But this could be overshadowed by expectations of at least a major clue over who will be the establishment candidate in March 2012 presidential polls although analysts caution it is still uncertain if an announcement will come at the weekend.
The second day of the congress is to take part at the gigantic Luzhniki sports complex in Moscow, in glitzy showpiece spectacle that will be attended by tens of thousands of people.
"Something will happen at the congress, otherwise there is no reason for Medvedev to go there. It's likely he will be on the United Russia list," said Maria Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Centre.
"He will be put forward together with Putin, to strengthen the idea of a friendly team"
But she added: "I do not think the presidential election decision will be announced at the congress so as to not weaken the impact of the United Russia list announcement."
Prominent social commentator Olga Kryshtanovskaya, who is a member of United Russia, said she expected Putin agreeing to head the party lists would be the main announcement rather than a clear statement he is returning to the Kremlin. "It is too early to turn one of the two into a lame duck."
Putin and Medvedev rarely appear together in public and time is running out for them to announce their future political plans ahead of the presidential vote.
Medvedev became president in 2008 after Putin served two consecutive terms. He has sought to take Russia on a course of modernization but has never escaped the shadow of his mentor who has refused to rule out standing for a third term.
So far, they have made only two things clear -- they will not run against each other and the announcement will come soon.
Otherwise, they have offered tantalisingly few clues other than shows of comradely unity including a summer fishing expedition where, curiously, Medvedev caught a predator pike and Putin a humble perch.
Whoever stands is certain to hold the Kremlin given the emasculated state of the opposition, a situation liberals blame on master manipulation by the deputy Kremlin chief of staff Vladislav Surkov.
The prospect of the emergence of a credible opposition party collapsed earlier this month when tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov was ousted as leader of the pro-business Right Cause party and promptly lambasted Surkov as a "puppeteer."
The last leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev bitterly complained in the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper Wednesday that the "authorities are not even hiding their desire to rid themselves of honest competition and guarantee their self-preservation."
"All this reminds me of the 1980s," he lamented.
In a dramatic move ahead of the elections, Putin created the All Russian Popular Front, an umbrella group which includes United Russia but also business and the public, prompting criticism it is a carbon copy of the Soviet Communist Party.
The final scenario for March 2012 remains the subject of mystery, with predictions ranging from Putin taking over as president and Medvedev essentially disappearing to both men keeping their current jobs.
Adding to the uncertainty, a report by the Saint Petersburg Political Fund broke this week with the idea that Putin was on a one-way track back to the Kremlin.
It said that there was a trend in Russia towards a "depersonification" of power, encouraged by the fall of strongmen in the Arab World, and leading the Front could allow Putin to retain power in his current position outside the Kremlin.
"In this case the question about the need for Putin to return to the Kremlin no longer looks so likely," it said.
© 2011 AFP