Russia awaits Putin Kremlin return

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Russia on Sunday awaited an historic return to the Kremlin by strongman Vladimir Putin in March presidential polls after President Dmitry Medvedev said he would step down in favour of his mentor.

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.

The opposition were due to hold a rally in central Moscow sanctioned by the authorities to protest Putin's re-election bid on Sunday morning. Even Medvedev's own chief economic adviser did not hide his disappointment.

At a dramatic congress of ruling party United Russia on Saturday, Putin rapidly accepted Medvedev's offer to take his place and made clear he wanted Medvedev to accept 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 showed no disappointment and later donned a sports jacket to join Putin for an evening stroll in the park in a fresh show of unity. But some of those close to him were less sanguine.

"There is no cause for joy," 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.

Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned bluntly that "if someone does not agree with the strategic approaches of the tandem then that person will leave the team."

In an interview with the Russian News Service radio, Peskov promised that there would be "significant changes" in the make-up of the government.

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."

The liberal opposition People's Freedom Party, whose leaders include Nemtsov, also held a convention on Saturday.

But it has been banned from taking part in the elections after the authorities refused to register it.

© 2011 AFP

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