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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?

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"The structure of power we have today looks much more like a monarchy than a democratic regime.... [In his first two terms as president], Putin restored Russian state power, stabilized its institutions, and raised Russian prestige on the world stage. He had become, in effect, the national leader before he ever agreed to share power with Medvedev," he says.

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All compasses point to Putin

Since first coming to power nearly 12 years ago, Putin has constructed a system of authority that bears little resemblance to that described in Russia's 1993 Constitution, and looks more like Russia's traditional setup of autocratic one-man rule. For centuries the country has been run by a sprawling state bureaucracy that answered to a single figure -- a czar or a general secretary -- who stood above the political fray, and even the law.

Though Putin has alternated between the posts of president and prime minister over the years, he has increasingly grown into the role that many of his supporters describe as "national leader," or that indispensable man-at-the-top toward whom all bureaucratic compasses point.

The national leader may hold any state position, or none at all, but no Russian will doubt his absolute authority. Joseph Stalin, who ruled the USSR from roughly 1928 until his death in 1953, never held a government post. Though the Soviet Union had several prime ministers and presidents during the Stalin era, few can even remember their names today.

"Stalin was once asked by his mother to explain what his job was," says Mr. Medvedev, the historian. "He thought about it, and then answered, 'well, I'm a sort of czar'....  Putin's system today looks like a kind of cross between an absolute monarchy and the Stalin regime."

Uniting fractious elites

Even his detractors admit that Putin is energetic, intelligent, articulate, and even-tempered, all characteristics that originally helped him unite Russia's fractious elites, marginalize the super-wealthy oligarchs who had infested the Kremlin during the rule of former president Boris Yeltsin, and reverse the country's social and economic decline following the disastrous decade of the 1990s.

But some fear that the familiar drawbacks of one-man rule could come roaring back to haunt Russia as Putin, with his absolute power assured and his contacts with the outside world mediated by a self-interested inner-court circle, settles into the Kremlin for what may likely be another 12 years of unchallenged rule.

"I fail to understand [Putin] anymore....   He is losing contact with reality," says Gleb Pavlovsky, who was a key adviser and political strategist to Putin during his first two terms as president, but resigned after a still murky inner-Kremlin spat earlier this year.

"In the past he was a team player; he wasn't so narcissistic, and didn't consider himself to be a genius," Mr. Pavlovsky says. "Now his sense of humor is gone. He talks down to people. He thinks he knows what you're going to say even before you open your mouth, and whatever part of what you say that he doesn't get doesn't matter to him....  He seems to believe that his great success over the past 10 years means that he understands Russia and the world better than anybody else."

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