On Friday, Putin kicked off a tour of United Russia's regional branches with a speech and town hall-style meeting with party activists in Novosibirsk. (You can read Russian press reports of the event here, here, and here.)
The nominal purpose of the tour, which will see the prime minister visit United Russia branches in seven more regions, is to present and promote yet another strategic development plan for Russia's far-flung provinces.
Putin's new plan, however, isn't exactly winning rave reviews from the pundits. Writing in today's edition of "the Moscow Times," political analyst Nikolai Petrov of the Carnegie Center said Putin's blueprint "lacks a common logic, and several parts come off as nothing more than empty rhetoric" and is "reminiscent of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s five-year and 10-year plans."
But that's ok, because the plan's content is not really the point. The point is that Putin has a plan and Putin is taking charge. "Putin’s plan...demonstrates his shift from operating on the sidelines of United Russia to assuming the role of a full-fledged party leader," Petrov writes.
Media reports have called Putin's Novosibirsk visit the kick-off of next year's State Duma election campaign. In addition to the speech and town hall meeting with United Russia in Novosibirsk, Putin visited a university, as AvtoVAZ car dealership, and an aircraft assembly plant.
But the visit could also be considered the kick-off of Putin's latest political incarnation -- as party boss/national leader.
As I have blogged here and here, the idea of Putin fully and completely taking charge of United Russia -- which controls the Duma, regional parliaments, and most city councils -- and using it to rule like a Soviet-era Communist Party boss is taking hold in some quarters of the elite.
After all, who needs the headaches and responsibilities of the presidency or the premiership when you can run the party that de facto controls authority at all levels of government. Presidents and prime ministers can come and go, depending on the political needs of the moment, but the party is forever (or so the logic goes).
Speaking in Novosibirsk, Putin even consciously revived the image of the Soviet Communist Party. "Like they said in the old days, every goal the party sets will be fulfilled. There can be no doubts about this," he said.
It's far too early to get a strong sense of whether or not this is indeed Putin's plan to keep and hold power. In Russia, plans schemes like this get floated, dropped, and revived at a dizzying pace. And it is also too early to know how much support such a move would have among the elite.
Until recently, it was an article of faith that Putin was essential to Russia's current political system because he was viewed as the only honest broker -- or arbiter -- among the various competing clans in the ruling elite.
Without Putin, the argument went, Russia's rulers would end up mired in a destabilizing and debilitating factional struggle for power. The lingering question at this point is the extent to which this is still the case.
If it is, Putin could probably pull off any scheme -- a return to the presidency in 2012, continue on as prime minister and remain the dominant half of the ruling tandem, or become the powerful boss of the ruling party -- to retain real power.
But if Putin has overstayed his welcome, then all bets are, of course, off.
-- Brian Whitmore