Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced Saturday what many had long suspected: that he will run for president in the spring in the expectation of extending his grip on Russian politics for an additional six years — and perhaps longer.
The announcement at a congress of the ruling United Russia party ended months of speculation about maneuvering inside the Kremlin by Putin and his protege, Dmitry Medvedev, who became president in 2008 when Putin left the office because of term limits.
Throughout Medvedev’s tenure, Putin has been widely considered the real power in Russia, and many expected him to reclaim the top job.
But some analysts said that despite his success at cultivating a popular image as a man equally comfortable doing martial arts, hunting big game, driving fast cars and facing down challengers to Russia’s interests, he was in danger of overreaching.
Although Russia has enjoyed a boom in demand for its oil and natural gas for most of the last decade, Putin has also overseen a sharp curtailment of political competition and personal freedom. Corruption is rampant. The younger, more reform-oriented Medvedev provided a buffer for those uncomfortable with Putin’s policies, according to some analysts.
In their appearances Saturday, the two men presented a united front. Medvedev nominated Putin to run for president, and Putin named Medvedev as a possible prime minister after the election, raising the prospect that they would just swap jobs.
Putin said it was not important who held which position.
“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.”
Putin, a former agent of the Soviet-era KGB, played on his image of strength as he stepped to the stage. Before accepting the nomination, he tapped the microphone, which did not seem to be working, and then indicated that it really didn’t matter. “My commander’s voice has not been lost,” he said.
Putin became president in 2000 but had to step down in 2008 because of Russia’s two-term limit. He became prime minister, having installed Medvedev as president.
Most other parties have not yet announced their presidential candidates. Although United Russia’s approval rating has slipped, its dominant position virtually ensures victory for Putin.
Changes to Russia’s laws mean that the new presidential term will be six years rather than four, and the winner could be reelected, meaning that it would be possible for Putin to remain president until 2024.
Putin said the two men had agreed years ago on who the party’s candidate would be. Medvedev did not give reasons as to why the decision was kept from the public, but said, “We always told only the truth.”
Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin political consultant and Soviet-era dissident, said the secret nature of and lack of explanation for the switch created the appearance of intrigue. Pavlovsky said he did not believe that Medvedev, who this year had indicated a willingness to run again for president, voluntarily gave up his post.
“Those words weren’t his,” Pavlovsky said, referring to Medvedev’s comments thanking the party for its generosity. “It’s something that would be said by a defendant in the Stalin-era courts of the 1930s.”
Andrei Piontkovsky, a political analyst at the Russian Academy of Sciences, also questioned whether strident comments about protecting Russia that Medvedev made to the congress were actually his own.
“We’re not giving her [Russia] away to those who want to destroy her, not giving her to those who lie to people, handing out empty and unrealistic slogans and promises,” Medvedev said.
Putin vowed to fix some problems that critics accuse him of fostering: the growing gap between rich and poor, corruption and bureaucratic barriers to entrepreneurship.
He said Russia needs to diversify its economy by encouraging industry, investment and modern technology. He said he would increase road and housing construction, rearm the military and close Russia’s budget deficit.
Things may not go smoothly for Putin if he wins in the spring, according to some political opponents and analysts.
Former deputy prime minister and longtime critic Boris Nemtsov said a third term for Putin “means guaranteed capital flight, mass emigration and destruction of army and special forces.” Nemtsov is cofounder of the People’s Freedom Party, to which the Justice Ministry denied official registration in June.
Pavlovsky said Putin running for a third term evokes the memory of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, whose rule until his death in 1982 was marked by political and economic stagnation.
“The presidential authority has lost legitimacy; it’s a huge blow,” Pavlovsky said. “We will see diminishing trust of the current government.”
Piontkovsky said he was surprised by the negative reaction, not only from the opposition but from moderates such as Pavlovsky and government supporters, including Medvedev’s chief economic advisor, Arkady Dvorkovich, who said via his Twitter account that there was no reason to be happy.
The announcement was a political mistake that would reverberate in the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, and among the elite, Piontkovsky predicted.
“There is no room in the Duma for a dictator-for-life,” he said. “There is a growing discontent among the elites. It’s going to get worse. Putin won’t stay in power for six years.”
Narizhnaya is a special correspondent