Saturday, September 24, 2011

Putin to return as Russia's president

Vladimir Putin declared on Saturday he planned to reclaim the Russian presidency at March elections that could open the way for the former KGB spy to rule until 2024.
The announcement, greeted by cheers at a congress of Prime Minister Putin's ruling United Russia party, ended months of speculation over whether he or President Dmitry Medvedev would run. The two have ruled in a power 'tandem' since Putin was forced by the constitution to yield the presidency four years ago after serving a maximum two consecutive terms.
"It is a great honor for me," Putin said to a long standing ovation from thousands of party members in a Moscow sports stadium after Medvedev proposed his mentor return as president. "Thank you, I hope for your support."
Putin, 58, described in leaked U.S. diplomatic cables as the "Alpha dog" in the tandem, then left the stage and embraced Medvedev. He also proposed his younger and more liberal protege replace him as prime minister after the March election to lead a young reformist government.
Over 11 years, Putin has cultivated the image of a vigorous leader, filmed riding bare chested, scuba diving and showing his judo skills. His policies, crushing a Chechen separatist rebellion, taming super-rich businessmen and bringing wayward regions to heel have similarly won him popularity.
But critics say his return to the Kremlin, virtually unopposed, could herald an era of economic and political stagnation in the world's largest country.
In carefully choreographed scenes, Putin had earlier on Saturday proposed Medvedev, 46, to lead United Russia's list of candidates for a parliamentary election on December 4.
This will prepare Medvedev for a role in government. The move is also intended to help reverse a decline in support for United Russia and boost its hopes of maintaining its two-thirds majority in the State Duma lower house.
"I want to say directly: (Medvedev and I) reached an agreement between ourselves long ago, several years ago already, on what to do in the future, on who should do what," Putin said.
"But both I and Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev believe that this is far from the most important thing -- who will do what, who will sit in what place. What is far more important is something else: how we will all work, what results we achieve, and how the citizens of our country will relate to this."
Opinion polls show other potential candidates, such as nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky or Communist Gennady Zyuganov, have much less support and Putin will easily be elected.
The main liberal opposition leaders such as former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov have only limited appeal nationwide and Kasyanov's party has been barred from taking part in the parliamentary election.
The next president will be elected for six years and the constitution still limits the head of state to a maximum of two straight terms -- meaning Putin could be in power for 12 years.
Investors had been urging him to announce his plans because the political uncertainty has deterred many from putting money into the $1.5 trillion economy of the world's largest energy producer.
As president from 2000 to 2008, Putin oversaw an economic boom where household incomes improved on the back of a rise in global oil prices and his tough talking and macho image helped restore Russia's self confidence on the world stage.
But Putin, who was once a KGB officer in East Germany, is widely seen as more conservative than Medvedev and critics accuse him of riding roughshod over human rights and restoring the power of the security forces.
Some economists say his return to the Kremlin makes it less likely that Russia will carry out much-needed changes such as pension reforms and reducing Russia's dependency on natural resources. Oil and gas revenues make up half the budget.
But Chris Weafer, a strategist at Troika Dialogue investment bank, said the need for change made it impossible for Putin not to carry out reforms.
"There will not be a return to the government style and agenda priorities of the previous Putin administration. That simply is not an option," he said.
Some experts fear a return to the economic stagnation of the 1970s and 1980s under Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev if reforms are not carried out. Critics such as former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev have warned of the risk of unrest.
"For today the country must face a very gloomy outlook -- this is stagnation and decay for another 12 years, this is the Brezhnev era revisited," said Andrei Piontkovsky, a political analyst at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Russia, a nuclear power and permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, also faces difficulties in ties with the United States, despite calls for a "reset' in relations, and uncertainty following the upheaval in the Arab world.
Putin's return to the presidency puts at risk the good reputation he established among many Russians for restoring a degree of stability after President Boris Yeltsin's chaotic presidency in the 1990s following the Soviet Union's collapse.
But senior political sources had said Putin was worried by a perception that Medvedev did not have enough support among political and business leaders to ensure stability if he tried to push ahead with political reforms as head of state.
Other political sources suggested Putin simply did not trust Medvedev enough to...More.

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