Vladimir Putin said Saturday he'll run for Russia's presidency next year, almost certainly ensuring he'll retake the office and foreshadowing years more of a strongman rule that many in the West have called a retreat from democracy. The announcement sets up the possibility that he could rule Russia until 2024.
In nominating Putin on Saturday, his United Russia party also approved his proposal that President Dmitry Medvedev take over Putin's current role as prime minister. Putin took over the premiership after serving as president from 2000-2008, bowing to term limits. But he was always the more powerful figure, with Medvedev viewed as a caretaker president.
During his presidency, Putin ruled Russia with a steely command, bringing about a system known as "managed democracy" that saw opposition politicians all but eliminated from the national eye. His personal popularity aided his maneuvering. Many Russians view Putin as the strong, decisive figure needed by a sprawling country troubled by corruption, an Islamist insurgency and massive economic inequality.
Putin's nomination at a congress of the United Russia party ends months of intense speculation as to whether he would seek to return to the Kremlin or whether he would allow the more mild-mannered and reform-leaning Medvedev to seek another term in next year's election.
The presidential election, to be held March 4, is preceded by national parliamentary elections on Dec. 4, in which United Russia will seek to retain its dominance; the party has 312 of the 450 seats in the current parliament.
The period for formal submission of presidential candidates' names has not yet begun, and it is unclear who might choose to challenge Putin for president. Constitutional changes have extended the presidential term to six years from four beginning in 2012, meaning Putin could stay on as president through 2024.
As president, Medvedev called for improvements in Russia's unreliable court system and for efforts against the country's endemic corruption. But his initiatives have produced little tangible result. Moving Medvedev to the premiership could set him up to take the brunt of criticism for austerity measures that Putin has warned will be necessary for Russia amid global economic turmoil.
Medvedev's advisers were clearly disappointed that he would not have another term in the Kremlin to try to continue pursuing reforms, and bristled at political maneuverings.
Medvedev's presidency held hopes for change "but our political elite made a different decision and chose the path to so-called stability," Yevgeny Gontmakher of the Medvedev-established Institute for Contemporary Development think-tank, said on Ekho Moskvy radio.
"This filthy deal of the country's supreme authorities is a blow to the institution of the presidency," Kremlin-connected analyst Gleb Pavlovsky told the radio station.
Putin's return to the presidency would likely continue or even strengthen the so-called "managed democracy" system he installed in his first stint as president. Under it, opposition parties face high obstacles to winning seats in parliament; of the four parties currently in parliament only the Communists, whose support is dwindling, act as a genuine opposition force.
Opposition groups' attempts to hold rallies are rarely approved by authorities and unsanctioned gatherings are quickly broken up by police. All major television channels are under state control and rarely present opposition views.
Under Medvedev, Russia's relations with the West have been less tense, even though there has been little change in Russia's domestic politics. The improved relations with Washington largely reflected the Obama administration's "reset" initiative and it is unclear if Obama will win a second term next year to continue the policy with Putin in the Kremlin.
Putin started a carefully orchestrated series of maneuvers at Saturday's session of the party congress in a Moscow sports arena by proposing that Medvedev head the party list for the December elections. Medvedev then proposed that Putin be the party's presidential candidate, and Putin returned to the stage to accept the proposal and express support for Medvedev as prime minister.
On his return to the stage, he found the microphone had been turned off temporarily, but said with a smile "I will speak louder. My commander's voice has not yet been lost."
The congress approved the moves with no apparent opposition. Despite apparently growing discontent among ordinary Russians with the party, United Russia exerts such an overwhelming presence in the country's politics that Putin's election and Medvedev's switch to the premiership is virtually ensured.
Many connect Putin with Russia's turnaround from post-Soviet poverty to prosperity, largely driven by high prices for Russia's vast supplies of oil and natural gas. But growing awareness of the need to move beyond a natural-resources economy could force Putin in a new term as president to pursue reforms, some analysts say.
"I expect Putin will establish a very pro-business and pro-reform cabinet," said Chris Weafer, chief strategist of the Russian investment bank Troika Dialog.
Putin also proposed Saturday that Russia's richest citizens face higher taxes. The flat income tax that came into effect during Putin's 2000-2008 presidency has been widely praised as improving tax collection and Putin's proposal would not change that, but he called for increases in consumption and real estate taxes that hit the rich comparatively harder.
Putin, who built his popularity on the back of strong economic growth, told the party congress on Friday that salaries and pensions would continue to grow, and he promised increased funding for education, health care and housing.
But he also cautioned that the government may need to take unpopular steps to cope with the global financial turmoil.
"The task of the government is not only to pour honey into a cup, but sometimes to give bitter medicine," Putin said. "But this should always be done openly and honestly, and then the overwhelming majority of people will understand their government."