Former two-term Russian president and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has ended years of speculation by accepting the nomination for a fresh presidential bid after the current president, Dmitry Medvedev, backed him at a weekend party congress.
Critics of the unrivaled hold that Putin has maintained on the country since his elevation to the presidency more than a decade ago were bound to see the maneuver as a recipe for further stagnation of the political system and the economy.
Leaders of Russia's beleaguered opposition interviewed by RFE/RL's Russian Service predicted the move would damage the country in both the short and long terms.
Putin, widely seen as Russia's most powerful politician, called it a "great honor" and thanked the United Russia party that nominated him.
"I would like to express my gratitude for the positive reaction to the proposal that I run for president of Russia," Putin told a cheering crowd of thousands of party activists at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium. "This is a great honor. I am counting on your support."
Putin had already proposed that Medvedev lead United Russia's party list in parliamentary elections in December and suggested that he serve as his prime minister.
"I am certain that United Russia will win, and based on popular support, Dmitry Anatolyevich will be able to create a new, effective, young, energetic management team and head the government of the Russian Federation."
'Turning Into Mubarak'
The carefully choreographed announcements, and the proposed role reversal between Putin and Medvedev, ends a long period of uncertainty about which member of Russia's so-called ruling tandem would stand in the March 2012 presidential election. Putin turned the presidency over to Medvedev in 2008 to become prime minister because he was constitutionally barred from seeking a third consecutive term. At the time, speculation arose quickly as to how Putin might engineer a return to the presidency.
Putin's victory in March is a virtual certainty, given both his popularity and Russia's tightly controlled political system. It would set the stage for him to serve two six year terms, which would keep him in the Kremlin until 2024, meaning he could end up running the country longer than Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, whose 18-year rule became synonymous with socioeconomic decay
Journalists in the press center watch a live broadcast of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's speech at the same United Russia party congress in Moscow on September 23.
Former Prime Minister and head of the extraparliamentary People's Democratic Union Mikhail Kasyanov suggested a new Putin presidency would deal a blow to nascent power structures in the country.
Yabloko leader Sergei Mitrokhin called it a blow to modernization efforts.
Longtime Kremlin critic and former First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, who now heads the smallish People's Freedom Party (Parnas), told RFE/RL's Russian Service that the situation was "the worst possible scenario for the development of my country."
"This will result in massive capital flight, a new wave of emigration, and further degradation of the state," Nemtsov said. "Our country can expect very serious social and economic shocks and shocks connected to the degradation of the country as a whole. Putin is turning into [Belarusian Preident Alyaksandr] Lukashenka, and he could transform into [deposed Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak or [deposed Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi."
Partying It Up
Medvedev made the proposal to nominate Putin for next year's race on the second day of the United Russia annual congress in Moscow.
"I think it would be correct for the congress to support the candidacy of the party chairman, Vladimir Putin, to the post of president of the country," Medvedev said.
Medvedev accepted the spot atop the electoral list earlier in the day and pledged his willingness to work hard on "practical work of the government," RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. Medvedev listed his priorities as modernizing Russia's economy, ushering in social safeguards, and battling corruption.
Putin told the congress that he and Medvedev had agreed on their future roles long ago.
About 11,000 delegates were attending United Russia's weekend congress, which opened on September 23.
Predicted By Some
The 58-year-old Putin, a former KGB colonel, is seen by many Kremlin watchers as more conservative than Medvedev, who is 46 years old and a lawyer by profession. Some economists have said Putin's presidential return could herald an era of economic stagnation in the world's biggest energy producer.
Many analysts, however, say the differences between the two are largely cosmetic and a matter of style rather than policy.
The news that Putin plans to return to the Kremlin comes as Russia is facing increasing economic uncertainty amid the European debt crisis and falling oil prices.
On September 22, Russia's two benchmark stock indexes suffered major losses. The ruble-denominated MICEX index dropped 7.8 percent, its biggest single-day loss in two years, and the dollar-denominated RTS fell 8.6 percent. A day later, the MICEX fell an additional 4.5 percent.
The Russian ruble, pressured by the ongoing capital flight, continued its plunge this past week, falling to 32.2 to the U.S. dollar, its weakest level since August 2009.
Lev Ponomaryov, director of the group For Human Rights, predicted that a combination of economic woes and political disillusionment would cause Putin and the ruling party to lose public support.
"This confirms my basic assumptions about this regime," Ponomaryov told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "It is Putin's regime and Medvedev plays a decorative role. I am certain Putin's and United Russia's popularity over the next half-year will fall by 10 percent and in a year it will be down by another 10 percent. And if there is an economic crisis it will simply be a catastrophe."
Some casual observers noted that Putin could keep his grip on the presidency until he is into his 70s. Edward Lucas, author of "The New Cold War: Putin's Russia and The Threat To The West," predicted via Twitter that the return would spell "stagnation" and "corruption" and was "bad for Russia" and "bad for Russia's neighbors." (See Storify page below for a sample of Web reaction and related content.)
Despite persistent allegations of unfairness in Russian elections, some of the country's harried opposition leaders have cited signs of weakness
in United Russia's position and argued that the December elections are a chance to deny that party the constitutional majority that it currently holds.
Written by Brian Whitmore and Andy Heil based on reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service and additional agency reports