SOME would have you believe it was the biggest question in Russian politics. Would Vladimir Putin, prime minister in 1999-2000, president to 2008 and since then prime minister, come back next year as Russia’s president? If so, the constitution (changed while he was away from the Kremlin) would allow him two consecutive six-year terms, keeping him in power until 2024, by when he will be 71.
The news from today’s congress of the United Russia party answers that question. Dmitry Medvedev, the current occupant of the Kremlin, said he wanted Mr Putin to run for president next year. Mr Putin thanked him and said it would be a “great honour”. His return to the Kremlin will be formalised at a presidential election in March. Mr Medvedev will head United Russia’s party’s list at elections to the Duma, the lower house of parliament, in December, and will take over from Mr Putin as prime minister.
That neat job swap could be portrayed as a triumph
for Russian democracy. The letter of the constitution is being obeyed. Mr Medvedev can continue his modernising crusade to liberate Russia from bureaucracy and corruption, promoting a high-tech answer to Silicon Valley, to be built at Skolkovo outside Moscow. Mr Putin, still the country’s most popular politician, remains as a guarantee of stability – a kind of Russian version of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew.
Seen another way, the whole thing is a farce. Despite being nominally in the junior job of prime minister, Mr Putin has remained the most powerful figure in Russian politics. The question, as The Economist has regularly written, was not whether he would stay in power, but how he would do it.
Mr Medvedev has consistently disappointed those who had hoped he would be the standard-bearer of an independent, reformist tendency in Russia. He has somewhat widened the bounds of permitted discussion (not least on the Stalinist past) but looking back on the past three years, it is hard to see any substantial change that bears his fingerprints.
By contrast Mr Putin, a former KGB officer, remade Russian politics in his own image after coming to power. He harassed and jailed opponents and confiscated their energy and media assets; he created a political system in which important elections always go the authorities’ way. The upcoming ones will be no exception.
The question for Russia under Mr Putin has never been about elections or the occupancy of the Kremlin. It is about a stagnant economy, rampant corruption, growing frustration among the middle classes and a war in the north Caucasus.
Once he returns to the presidency Mr Putin, a man with no apparent ideological convictions, may decide that the only way to ensure his continuity in power is to move the economy away from its dependence on resource extraction, to clamp down on graft and adopt a new policy towards Russia’s restive regions. Unlike today’s announcement, that would be genuine news.
Or he may opt to leave everything as it is. In which case Russia may begin a new, more dangerous chapter in its history.