Leader for Life? How Vladimir Putin Set Up His Kremlin Comeback

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Ivan Sekretarev / AP

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin addresses a United Russia congress in Moscow on Sept. 24, 2011

In Russia this weekend, an image went viral of Vladimir Putin as he might look in his 70s, withered and morose, his jowls packed into the collar of a general's uniform. The drawing pulsed around the Russian blogosphere like the signals from a pinched nerve, making visual sense of the political future that Russians faced on Saturday. That was the day it became official: Putin, who is now Prime Minister, will run for President next spring, opening the door for him to reclaim his throne for another 12 years — until the ripe old age of 71. Barring some kind of revolution, this amounts to the prospect of another Kremlin leader for life, a tradition that stretches back 450 years to the reign of Ivan the Terrible, Russia's first Czar.

No matter how popular or effective a leader may be, that seems like a long commitment, and Putin's ruling party, United Russia, made every effort over the weekend to cast it as the shining path to the glory of the nation. "The return of Vladimir Putin to the post of President is totally logical, because he remains our national leader," Andrei Isaev, a senior party boss, told TIME during a break in the party's congress, during which Putin made his grand announcement. "Our society sees him as its leader and nothing else." And it's true. In the absence of political competition, Putin remains extremely popular in Russia, even after the sharp dip in his approval ratings that the economic crisis has brought. It is also true that even though he has held the less powerful post of Prime Minister since 2008, he has remained the undisputed leader of the country. But the elation about his impending return to the presidency was not as unanimous as his party tried to make it seem. A few groans could even be heard from the loyal Kremlin ranks.

Within an hour of the congress's ending, senior Kremlin adviser Arkady Dvorkovich posted the following line on Twitter: "There is nothing to be happy about." Later that night, he quoted the lyrics of a melancholy ballad in another tweet. "These rivers don't flow anywhere ... These birds don't fly anywhere ... These people are in no hurry to get anywhere." The lines, taken from the Russian rock group Mashina Vremeni (Time Machine), seemed to capture the greatest apprehension of Putin's critics — another 12 years of the status quo, of political stagnation. Alexei Kudrin, one of Putin's most trusted advisers, who has served as Russia's Finance Minister for 12 years, said on Sunday that he wanted no part of it. "I see no role for myself in the new government," Kudrin told reporters during a trip to Washington.

These two dissenting voices, so far the only ones from the political elite, were from the small faction of Kremlin liberals who have lobbied for President Dmitri Medvedev, a self-styled Westernizer and reformer, to stay on for six more years. But his re-election would have required a reversal of Putin's grand political strategy. In 2008, when the constitution barred Putin from taking a third consecutive term as President, he chose a successor from among his most loyal lieutenants. The weakest and least independent among them was Medvedev, and when he was chosen, it seemed clear that he would be little more than a placeholder President, warming Putin's seat until he could legally return in 2012.

During Medvedev's presidency, however, the young lawyer began to show signs of independence and stated repeatedly that he wanted to stay on. Another term in office, his supporters argued, would give him a chance to turn some of his liberal rhetoric into action, including his promises of greater freedom of the press, fewer restrictions on the political opposition and the easing of state control of the economy. Those ambitions will now be demoted along with Medvedev himself. Under the plan that Putin laid out on Saturday, Medvedev, after stepping down in the spring, will take the post of Prime Minister, a role vested with little constitutional authority compared with Russia's all-powerful President.

Remarkably, Putin is positioning all of this as something that was decided by the two of them, without so much as a consultation with the parliament, let alone the electorate, which will simply legitimize Putin's decision during the presidential vote next March. "I want to say it straight out," Putin told the congress. "The agreement over what will be done in the future was reached between us several years ago." This did not jibe too well with the remark Medvedev made from the same podium that day that "the most important thing is that the choice always remains with you, with the Russian people."

Given such inconsistencies, the party congress did not seem too concerned with the details of the democratic process. The main point on its agenda was to vote on a platform for December's parliamentary elections. But after Putin announced his wish to return to the presidency and delivered a speech full of extravagant promises — that he would boost wages by around 50%, defeat corruption, double the rates of road construction, home construction and total economic growth, and "completely" rearm the navy and the army in the next five years — a party functionary named Oleg Morozov jumped up from his seat in the front row and suggested that they skip the process of debating a party platform. Instead, Morozov suggested, the party should "formalize this speech as our party program." The thousands of party members in attendance erupted in hoots and applause, the press section in laughter, and the proposal was passed in a unanimous vote.

Only once was the subsequent streak of unanimous voting broken at the party congress. During the poll to choose its list of parliamentary candidates, 1 out of around 600 ballots was found to be in dissent. "Where is this one person," Putin demanded from the podium. "Where is this dissident?" The delegates looked nervously around, but no one spoke. "Too bad," Putin said. "He should have shown himself."