WATCH: President Dmitry Medvedev proposes Vladimir Putin as a candidate for the Russian presidency in 2012. (In Russian)
By Brian Whitmore
With this weekend's announcement that he will run for president in the March 2012 election, Vladimir Putin appears on track to become Russia's longest-serving ruler since Josef Stalin.
Should he end up serving two six-year terms, that would keep him in power until 2024, more than two decades after he moved into the Kremlin following former President Boris Yeltsin's surprise resignation and anointment on New Year's Eve 1999.
That's longer than Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev's 18-year reign from 1964 until his death in 1982 -- a period that has become synonymous with economic and social stagnation -- and just shy of the nearly three decades that Stalin was in power from the mid-1920s until his death in 1953.
Opposition politicians and analysts say Putin's return to the presidency could lead to the cynicism, corruption, and socioeconomic decay that marked the late Brezhnev period.
"Regrettably, nothing is going to change in our country," Sergei Mitrokhin, leader of the opposition party Yabloko, tells RFE/RL's Russian Service. "Citizens need to decide whether they are ready to tolerate what is going on in Russia today for at least another 12 years. There won't be any modernization. There will be a deepening of the tendency toward stagnation that will lead to a crisis in the near future."
Eduard Lucas, international editor of the British weekly "The Economist" and author of "The New Cold War: Putin's Russia and the Threat to the West" and the forthcoming "Deception: Spies, Lies, and How Russia Dupes the West," agrees that the country now runs the risk of repeating the ossification of the late Brezhnev period:
"I think the Brezhnev analogy is quite a serious one," Lucas tells RFE/RL. "Obviously he [Putin] is not Brezhnev in that he is physically fitter and that [Russia] is not a police state or planned economy. But that feeling of corruption and incompetence will be very strong."
Not Gonna Risk It
There was very little doubt, even before the September 24 announcement, that Putin would remain Russia's de facto leader. The question was whether he would rule from behind the scenes while formally holding a subordinate post -- as during Medvedev's presidency as prime minister -- or return to the Kremlin as president.
"I don't think that this was any kind of surprise," Lucas says. "We've known for a decade that Putin is the most important person in Russia. The only question was how he was going to stay in power rather than whether he was going to stay in power. He's chosen the most obvious way of doing it, which is to come back as president."
Lucas adds that the decision for Putin to return to the presidency appears to have been partially motivated by the fact that attempting to rule Russia without holding the presidency was fraught with risks.
"The way the Russian system works, these formal channels of power are important," Lucas says. "It isn't like China, where you can have Deng Xiaoping behind the scenes, or Singapore, where you have Lee Kuan Yew behind the scenes. The paper flow matters, the signature matters, the pechat [stamp] matters."
He speculates that it was "a source of some awkwardness and instability for them that Medvedev was theoretically in the top job, and so Putin had to have a guy in Medvedev's office managing the paper flow so people didn't run around behind him."
Analysts say the elite is divided between technocrats like Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, who want the political system opened up and modernized, and security service veterans like Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, who seek to maintain the tightly controlled state Putin built over the past decade.
Hopes For Modernization
But Moscow-based political analyst Vladimir Pribylovsky tells RFE/RL's Russian Service that with Medvedev a lame duck, those in the elite who favor reform and modernization are now looking elsewhere for a standard bearer who they hope can effect change from within the system.
"Over the past year, those seeking to keep Medvedev in power have become weakened," Pribylovsky says. "Moreover, some of them have focused their attention on Aleksei Kudrin as the initiator of reform and change and opposition to the conservative group led by [Deputy Prime Minister Igor] Sechin."
With his power seemingly secure for another dozen years, Putin, of course, may feel confident enough to embark on a political reform campaign. But despite the economic reforms he initiated early in his presidency when he simplified the tax code and liberalized land ownership, Putin has shown little willingness to loosen up the political system. On the contrary, most of his moves have been in the direction of making it more authoritarian and top-heavy.
For this reason, Lucas says he is skeptical that Putin will become a reformer during his second stint in the Kremlin. Putin's power is based on his ability to manage and balance the interests of competing financial, economic, and political clans that comprise Russia's ruling elite.
Too much reform, he says, could destabilize these arrangements with unpredictable consequences.
"He's the arbiter, the balancing force," Lucas says. "When these clan feuds bubble up, he settles things. He's a prisoner of the system he's created, which means that he can't really change it."
Arslan Saidov and Yelena Polyakovskaya of RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report from Moscow