It looks to be shaping up as one of history's greatest political comebacks.
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.
"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.
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."
Putin's early success was based partly on the favorable comparison between him and the doddering Mr. Yeltsin, whom he replaced. He also benefited from soaring global oil prices – hydrocarbon exports account for about 60 percent of Russian state revenues – which enabled him to buy social peace and elite solidarity by spreading the wealth around.
"It's a bit of a paradox that Putin is returning at a moment when the system he built is going into decline," says Liliya Shevtsova, author of an in-depth analysis of Putin's political comeback in the October issue of the Washinton-based journal Foreign Affairs.
"The pinnacle of his system was before 2008, the years of the oil eldorado, when Putin was on top, with lots of resources to work with and massive public popularity," she says. "Now, the economy is stagnating, his popularity is sagging, and people are increasingly frustrated.... The Putin consensus is unraveling before our eyes. Today people don't compare Putin with Yeltsin, they compare him with the early Putin, and find him wanting. Now people don't hope for a better life, they just hope to survive.
"It's a totally different atmosphere," she says.
According to a recent survey carried out by Moscow State University's political science department, and reported by the independent Russian news agency RBK, Putin's stratospheric public approval ratings of 70 percent and more during his early years have fallen to just 44 percent in October.
"Our latest data suggests that people are getting tired of the authorities," says Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the independent Levada Center public opinion agency in Moscow.
Public opinion polling is a notoriously dodgy science, especially in Russia, experts point out. Ordinary Russians may vent their fury at mid-level bureaucrats to pollsters, but are usually loathe to criticize the top leader.
Catcalls for Putin
Yet in one tiny sign that things may be changing below the radar screen, Putin faced an unprecedented chorus of catcalls when he appeared last week at a Moscow martial arts match and attempted to give an improptu speech. Many videos of the event have been posted on YouTube, one of which has since garnered well over 2 million hits.
But that does not translate into any immediate threat to Putin, Mr. Grazhdankin adds.
"The system in Russia is embodied in the figure of Putin. TV depicts him as the hero who takes all into his hands, the one who cares for, protects, and aids the average Russian... Our youth know nothing but Putin as the one and only," he says.
"There is a general perception that if Putin were to leave, there would be chaos."