Vladimir Putin signals plan to reclaim old job as Russian president
Vladimir Putin dropped the heaviest hint so far that he aims to return to his former post as president in 2012, a move that could see him still in the Kremlin in 2024 – aged 72. Speaking to a group of international scholars and journalists at his country residence, the Russian prime minister refused to quash rumours that he would return as president when Dmitry Medvedev finished his first term.
He said the process of deciding who would be president would follow the same pattern as in the run-up to the last election, when Putin effectively called all the shots and picked Medvedev as his successor. An election took place, but the result was a foregone conclusion.
“Was there any competition in 2007? No. Then we won’t have this in 2012,” Putin said. Smiling broadly, he added: “We will agree because we are people of one stamp. We will take all these things into account and then decide.”
Putin even sought to use Britain as a defence of the Russian example of a ruling elite deciding over the head of the people who should lead the state.
“Look at Great Britain, when a friend of mine [Tony Blair] retired and automatically promoted Gordon Brown to the post of prime minister. Did the people of Great Britain participate in this? There was a change in leadership in the country and they just decided. Whereas when my term expired I supported Dmitry Medvedev because I thought he was the best person to be leader, and I was right.”
Putin’s comments to the annual session of the Valdai Club, a group of foreign and Russian experts, raise the prospect that his era, which began in 2000, could extend for at least another decade. Under Russia‘s new constitution the next president is entitled to stay in power for two consecutive six-year terms.
Medvedev has been struggling hard to emerge from Putin’s shadow and the prime minister’s latest comments will not help his efforts to put an individual stamp on his term of office. His power remains largely declarative and on Thursday he delivered a withering assessment of the state of his country, while avoiding any direct reference to Putin.
The country faced vast social challenges, Medvedev said, including endemic corruption, a feeble civil society, terrorism, alcoholism and smoking. It was also in the grip of a poverty-fuelled insurgency across its North Caucasus.
“An ineffective economy, a semi-Soviet social sphere, a weak democracy, negative demographic trends and an unstable Caucasus. These are very big problems even for a state like Russia,” Medvedev, who took over as president in May 2008, wrote in his official blog.
The president also conceded that Russia’s vertically controlled political system, in which all opposition parties have been squeezed out, was not ideal. The country’s democracy should be “open, flexible and complex”, he wrote. There should also be “competitive elections”.
Commentators were underwhelmed by Medvedev’s attempts to shape the debate. Most Russians believe that Putin still runs the country.
Although foreign policy is supposed to be the president’s preserve, Putin talked widely about US attempts to press the so-called reset button to establish better relations with Russia and Iran.
Putin said Obama’s intentions were good. ” It gives me modest optimism,” he said of their meeting in Moscow in July. However he refused to say what Russia would give Obama, if, as expected the US announces plans to shelve the instalment of missile interceptors in Poland and a high powered radar system in the Czech Republic, as part of missile defence against Iran.
Putin met the group at his dacha in Novo-Ogaryovo, among pine and birch forests just outside Moscow. Unlike on previous occasions, he made no attempt to appear as Russia’s strongman. Instead he cracked jokes with journalists, saying at one point that Obama had struck him as “cute”.
On Iran, Putin was less hard line than the foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, saying that while Iran had the right to develop a civil nuclear energy programme, it had to understand how explosive the attempt to get a nuclear bomb would be to the Middle East as a whole. “Iran should exercise responsibility and remove concern on the part of Israel and the international community as a whole,” Putin said.
This week Russia had been embarrassed by revelations in the Israeli press that the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, flew secretly to Moscow on Monday. The visit came after unconfirmed reports that parts of the Russian S300 anti-aircraft system had been found on a ship bound for Iran. Israel has pressed Moscow not to go ahead with the sale of the system to Iran, for fear that it could make endanger Israeli aircraft striking Iran’s nuclear installations