The architecture of Russia's future power system became visible Monday as a confident-looking Vladimir Putin told delegates at the pro-Kremlin United Russia party's convention that he will serve as prime minister if his longtime aide Dmitri Medvedev is elected to replace him as president next March.
"If the people give their trust to Dmitri Anatolyevich Medvedev and he is elected president, then I would be ready to continue my work as head of government," Mr. Putin said.
Putin, whose approval rating was nearly 90 percent last month, has long affirmed that he will step down as Russia's Constitution requires when his second term expires in March. It was he who first floated the idea of becoming prime minister when he agreed to head United Russia's ticket in the Dec. 2 parliamentary elections, in which the party won a majority.
Last week, Mr. Medvedev, Putin's hand-picked successor, formally offered him the job. Putin's acceptance Monday sealed the deal. But experts say his decision was clearly scripted in advance, and will place him first in line to succeed the president under Russian law.
"This arrangement with Medvedev ensures that power will be in Putin's hands for at least a year or so," says Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the independent Panorama think tank in Moscow. "Power in Russia does not depend on what's written in the Constitution. We live according to the rule 'the strongest is always right.' "
Some analysts had speculated that Putin would use his new power base in parliament to reengineer the Constitution, but at the convention Monday he insisted there would be no fundamental redivision of powers within Russia's 1993 Constitution, which vests the lion's share of authority in the president. That suggests he may be prepared to fade gradually from Russia's political summit, which is traditionally focused on a single strong leader.
"Why would Putin accept a subordinate job like prime minister which carries no power and could bring the end of his career?" asks Boris Kagarlitsky, an expert with the independent Institute of Comparative Politics in Moscow. "He obviously wants to leave politics, and has probably been dreaming of it for the past eight years."
Some fear such an arrangement may be fundamentally unstable, however. The prime minister is traditionally a technocrat who is appointed by, and serves at, the pleasure of the president. A strong figure in that post may create tensions which have already buffeted Russia in its brief democratic history.
In 1993, when Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, backed by a parliamentary majority, challenged President Boris Yeltsin. The issue was resolved with gunfire, the legislature was dissolved, and Mr. Yeltsin rewrote the Constitution to increase presidential powers.
But Mr. Medvedev, a fellow St. Petersburger who has worked with Putin for 17 years, is an apparatchik who has never run for public office and is bound to lean heavily on his former boss for guidance.
In his acceptance speech Monday, Medvedev – nominated as United Russia's presidential candidate by a nearly unanimous vote – listed his key policies, such as strengthening Russia's position in the world, preserving the Russian nation, and looking after the young and the old.
"All this is in Vladimir Putin's strategy. I will be guided by this strategy, if I am elected president," Medvedev said. "But carrying out an idea can only be successful with the participation of its author. I have no doubt that in the future Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] will use all his resources, all his influence in Russia and abroad, for the benefit of Russia."
Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a leading expert on Russia's political elite, says Putin will be "number two, but de facto number one and that's a situation that can go on for a couple of years. After that we may see changes to the Constitution, or the role of parliament may be strengthened in the system."
Putin himself was plucked from relative obscurity by Kremlin insiders and moulded into a suitable replacement for Yeltsin. But he soon shoved aside those who had planned to influence him from behind the scenes and consolidated power.