Putin charts way back to power — as prime minister

Vladimir Putin on Monday gave the strongest hint yet that he will remain at the centre of power in Russia for the forseeable future, saying the possibility of him becoming prime minister after the presidential election in March was ”entirely realistic”.

The president, who has stressed his wish to stay involved in high-level politics, cannot seek a third term under the Constitution, but there is nothing to prevent him becoming prime minister. He could then return for a non-consecutive, and legal, third term as president in 2012.

Putin has so far been coy about his future, but he made a surprise announcement as he met members of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party and agreed to head the party’s list for parliamentary elections in December. Popular figures often head party lists, elected according to proportional representation, but many drop out afterwards and do not become MPs.

”Heading the government is a realistic idea,” Putin told the party’s congress when asked about his plans. He added that it was ”early” to be discussing himself as a candidate, but he would be prepared to take the prime minister’s post on two conditions: that United Russia won the parliamentary poll and that a ”decent, competent and effective person with whom I could work” was elected as president in spring 2008.

Analysts said that United Russia’s victory was a foregone conclusion and the next president was bound to be accommodating because he would be anointed by Putin himself.

The Russian leader has maintained high popularity ratings throughout his seven years in the presidency and a poll last month indicated that 64% of Russians would vote for him if he could run next year. His successor is likely to be the candidate that he publicly endorses.

A political analyst, Alexei Mukhin, said Putin was in the process of ”reordering the political structure of Russia under his own control”. The country’s leadership would become collegiate, with two centres of power, while ”at least at the beginning, Putin will exert very tight control over the new president’s activities”.

There had been feverish speculation about Putin’s future plans, but until Monday it had been expected that he would take a role outside government, such as chairperson of the state energy giant Gazprom. However, it had also been widely predicted that he would stay heavily involved in politics, whatever his job.

At a meeting last month with the Guardian and a group of foreign academics and journalists, Putin confirmed that he would maintain a role in Russia’s public life. ”I hope to be fit enough and I have the desire to do so,” he said. ”Any future president will have to reckon with that.”

Boris Gryzlov, the leader of United Russia, added fresh weight to the idea that Putin was not about leave the political stage, telling the president he was inextricably linked with Russia’s revival.

During his two terms as president, Putin has centralised power in the Kremlin and strengthened state control over Russia’s huge hydrocarbon reserves. Rising living standards have bolstered his popularity, while his opponents say political repression has increased.

Mukhin said that if Putin became prime minister it was ”entirely possible” that with support from United Russia in the Parliament he would change the law to increase the powers of the premiership vis-à-vis the president. ”Putin promised not to change the constitution before he leaves the presidency, but he doesn’t have any obligations beyond that,” he noted.

Putin’s announcement eclipsed Sunday’s congress of the Other Russia opposition coalition, which put forward the former world chess champion Garry Kasparov as a presidential candidate. – Guardian Unlimited Â

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