The skeptics have been proven right.
After four years of wielding power -- often indirectly -- as prime minister, former President Vladimir Putin stepped back onto Russia's political center stage Saturday to announce that he will be the Kremlin's next master, just as his fiercest critics always argued he would.
For at least a moment, the real workings of the political system built by Mr. Putin over the past decade became transparent. There was little doubt that he has actually been in charge of the country all along, and not the man elected by the voters and designated by Russia's Constitution to do that job: President Dmitry Medvedev.
Despite a detailed facade of multiparty elections and parliamentary democracy, analysts say that Russia has actually been run for the past decade by a small group of people who came into the Kremlin with Putin in 2000, and the lines of power were not altered in the slightest when Putin stepped aside in favor of his protege, Mr. Medvedev, 4 years ago.
At the time, Putin said he was leaving power in deference to a Constitutional two-term limit, and he backed Medvedev as the most qualified person to succeed him. In turn, Medvedev appointed Putin to serve as his prime minister.
"This makes it clear that Putin has always been at the top," says Nikolai Svanidze, a leading Russian TV personality and member of the Kremlin's Public Chamber, an advisory body. "There were never any real differences between Putin and Medvedev anyway. Putin is seen as more conservative, while Medvedev talked about 'modernization,' even if it was just words."
Medvedev hands back the reins
It was incumbent President Medvedev who nominated Putin to take back his old job Saturday.
The former loyal Kremlin retainer whom Putin tapped four years ago to be his placeholder in the presidency stood before a crowd of 10,000 at the congress of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party at Moscow's Luzhniki indoor football stadium to say: "I believe it would be right if the congress support party leader Vladimir Putin's candidacy for president," in presidential elections slated for next March.
Putin had earlier suggested that Medvedev head the candidate list of the United Russia party, whose popularity has been sagging, in elections for the State Duma in December.
In his acceptance speech, the hyper-popular Putin, whom many Russians have referred to as "national leader" even through the the 4 years of Medvedev's presidency, called it a "great honor." He added that Medvedev might become prime minister in the next Putin administration.
Putin admits to having the plan all along
To the astonishment of some, Putin admitted that this had been the plan all along, and that Medvedev had been party to it.
"I would like to say directly that the agreement about what should be done [was] reached a long time ago, several years ago," Putin told the congress.
But for the past four years the two men have publicly promoted what now appears to be a fiction, that Medvedev was growing into the job of president with the active support of his predecessor and "tandem" partner, Putin.
Medvedev, who says he likes jazz, yoga, and Western rock bands, hinted that he would steer Russia away from the anti-Western foreign policy that marked the Putin era, cultivated the country's beleaguered liberals, occasionally sided with human rights activists against official abuses and generally promoted an image of himself as an Internet-savvy geek who was in tune with the aspirations of Russia's youth.
He repeatedly suggested that he wanted to be president again and did nothing to dissuade supporters who saw in him the hope that the Putin era, with tough curbs on democracy, independent media and civil society, might fade away in the course of a second Medvedev term of office.
Medvedev even allowed a leading Moscow think tank, which he was personally associated with, to produce what looked very much like an election program that might be used in a face off against the more conservative Putin.
"Many people supported Medvedev's line, and criticized Putin," says Stanislav Kucher, an analyst with the pro-business Moscow daily Kommersant. "Now they don't know what to do. Many are scared that Medvedev will abandon them. It's a crushing disappointment. It turns out that Putin was the locomotive of power all along, and everything Medvedev said was just words."