Putin's next marquee moment: Russia's presidency
Vladimir Putin is almost certain to return as Russia's president next March. Is this Russian-style democracy or evidence of the country's reversion to authoritarian traditions?
It looks to be shaping up as one of history's greatest political comebacks.Skip to next paragraph
Vladimir Putin, a successful two-term president who stepped aside four years ago in deference to the Russian Constitution, will almost certainly return to the Kremlin in presidential polls next March, propelled by popular demand that even his hapless successor, Dmitry Medvedev, admits is an unstoppable force.
Mr. Putin, whom Forbes Magazine recently listed as the "world's second most-powerful person," appears to be at the height of his game, poised to lead his country out of its long post-Soviet malaise and into its rightful place in the modern world.
Many Russians are delighted, and some say it's a triumph of Russian-style democracy. Putin is coming back thanks to "a political model based on constant confidence [in his leadership]," says Dmitry Orlov, director of the independent Agency for Political and Economic Communication in Moscow. "The purpose of the system is to develop Russia's institutions of political and economic authority ... the course will now be for modernization."
But some prominent critics argue that Putin isn't "returning" to supreme power because he never actually relinquished it. They say his power is based on a stage-managed electoral system, a straitjacketed media, and a Kremlin-promoted public perception that there is no alternative to his leadership.
They say Putin's decision at a conference of the ruling United Russia party in September to terminate his "tandem" leadership with Mr. Medvedev and retake the mantle of presidency was simply a moment of truth, in which the country's reversion to its authoritarian traditions over the past decade became suddenly obvious.
Putin's comeback has thrown a new and potentially ominous light on all other Russian political developments, including the upcoming elections to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, which are slated for Dec. 4. If Russia is no longer even nominally on the path to some version of a post-Soviet democracy, critics ask, then where might it be headed under what must now be seen as the open-ended leadership of Putin?
"The tradition of one-man rule is typical for Russia, and it has hardly ever stopped" except for very brief periods of experimentation, says Roy Medvedev, one of Russia's best-known historians.