The announcement by the Russian president Dmitry Medvedev that he favours taking a back seat and recommending his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, to succeed him in 2012 should hardly come as a surprise. The reality is that Putin, the macho former KGB officer, has never gone away since he stood down in 2008 after serving two terms.
Putin’s current break from the president’s office as Medvedev’s prime minister – a break required by constitutional rules that forbade him standing for a third term – was widely seen as no more than a mechanism to keep Putin in the public eye until he could stand again, an arrangement Medvedev said yesterday was “agreed a long time ago”. Indeed, Putin has long been regarded as the real power behind his compliant ally.
That odd interregnum has not seen Putin behave in an any less “presidential” way. He has stayed at the forefront of the nation’s imagination through his regular media appearances that have cast him as the shirtless action man.
While there is no denying his real popularity – or that of his United Russia party – that support has been gained at the expense of a genuine opposition or a free media, both of which have been targeted by Putin and his supporters.
Indeed, Medvedev’s announcement follows months of political manoeuvring, which has included the unopposed appointment of Putin ally Valentina Matvienko as speaker of the upper house of the Russian parliament to replace the leader of the Just Russia party, who was removed after criticising United Russia.
Putin will benefit too from constitutional changes pushed through by Medvedev, which critics suggested at the time were designed to bolster Putin’s power should he run again to ensure that the new term – which Putin will certainly win – will be for six years rather than four.
All of which confirms a country slipping from democracy back towards autocracy. And that should be a cause for serious concern.