Putin to return as Russian president

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Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Saturday said he would stand for an historic third term as president after current Kremlin chief Dmitry Medvedev agreed to step aside for the 2012 polls.

In a carefully-choreographed job swap announced at a glitzy ruling party congress, Medvedev said he was ready to be prime minister under Putin, who has dominated Russia for over a decade and could now occupy the Kremlin to 2024.

The long-awaited announcement at the United Russia congress ended months of uncertainty over which of the men would stand and was greeted with howls of dismay by liberals who predicted that the country was heading for catastrophe.

"I think it would be correct for the congress to support the candidacy of the party chairman, Vladimir Putin, to the post of president of the country," Medvedev told the annual congress to cheers from thousands of delegates.

Putin rapidly accepted the offer and made clear he wanted Medvedev to take his own job as prime minister. "For me this is a great honour," Putin said in his acceptance speech.

Presidential elections are scheduled for March, with the United Russia candidate almost certain to win the country's top job due to the emasculated state of the Russian opposition and the Kremlin's control over the media.

The announcement marks a dramatic comeback to the country's top post for the former KGB officer, who had left the Kremlin in 2008 after serving a maximum two consecutive terms and installed his former chief of staff as president.

Putin first became president when Boris Yeltsin dramatically resigned on New Year's Eve 1999. He restored Russia's stability during a period of high oil prices but was also accused of imposing an authoritarian regime.

After Putin left the Kremlin in 2008 to become prime minister, almost all observers assumed he retained the real power in Russia even as Medvedev embarked on a drive to modernise the country.

Under constitutional changes pushed forward by Medvedev and which many long suspected were aimed at further strengthening Putin, the new president will have a six-year mandate rather than four years as before.

This means that if Putin again served the two maximum consecutive terms, he could stay in power until 2024, by which time he would be 72 and the longest-serving Moscow leader since dictator Josef Stalin.

Medvedev joined hands with Putin at the end of the congress, seeking to put a brave face on the announcement and appear happy with his consolation prize of the post of prime minister. But some of those close to him were less sanguine.

"There is no reason to be happy," said Medvedev's chief economic adviser Arkady Dvorkovich, who had publicly urged the president to stand for a second term. "It's a good time to switch over to a sports channel," he wrote on Twitter.

"This is a blow to the prestige of the Russian presidency as an institution," said political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky, a one-time unpaid Kremlin adviser who was dismissed earlier this year.

But Putin said he was certain that Medvedev "will be able to create a new, effective, young, energetic administration team and head the government of the Russian Federation."

He also said the incumbent president would head United Russia's list in December parliamentary elections which precede the presidential polls and will be a critical test of public support for the authorities.

Russian liberals expressed horror at the thought of the man they blame for emasculating civil society in Russia in the last decade and turning most media into government mouthpieces returning to the Kremlin.

"This is a catastrophic scenario for Russia," said former cabinet minister Boris Nemtsov, now a member of the sidelined liberal opposition. "We should expect capital flight, immigration and dependence on natural resources."

But Chris Weafer, chief strategist at the Troika Dialog investment bank in Moscow, said Putin would work harder than in his first two terms to attract foreign investment and reform the economy.

"I expect Putin will establish a very pro-business and pro-reform cabinet. I do not expect any market reaction to the news -- investors are more concerned about global events and the weakening oil price," he said.

Putin said he and Medvedev had "long ago" agreed on their future roles in Russia, despite the months of suspense and speculation over who would stand in the presidential elections.

Medvedev and Putin spoke at the gigantic Luzhniki sports complex in a glitzy spectacle attended by thousands of people from all walks of life including famous actors, miners and female activists.

The liberal opposition People's Freedom Party, whose leaders include Nemtsov, also held a convention on Saturday but controversially is banned from taking part in the elections after the authorities refused to register it.

According to the latest survey by leading Russian pollster VTsIOM, 43 percent of Russians will vote for United Russia, well down from its peak rating of 60 percent in October 2008 but still quadruple that of its nearest challenger.

© 2011 AFP

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