- Associated Press - Saturday, September 24, 2011

MOSCOW (AP) — Vladimir Putin said Saturday he’ll run for Russia’s presidency next year, almost certainly ensuring he’ll retake the office and foreshadowing years more of a strongman rule that many in the West have criticized as a retreat from democracy. The announcement sets up the possibility that Putin could reign over Russia until 2024.

In nominating Putin on Saturday, his United Russia party also approved his proposal that President Dmitry Medvedev take over Putin’s current role as prime minister. Putin took over the premiership after serving as president from 2000-2008, bowing to term limits. But he was always the more powerful figure, with Medvedev viewed as a caretaker president.

Putin’s return to the presidency also is unlikely to ease Russia’s dispute with the United States over the building of a European missile-defense system. Economic pressures, however, could push Putin to pursue more business-friendly policies, analysts said.

During his presidency, Putin ruled Russia with a steely command, bringing about a system known as “managed democracy” that saw opposition politicians all but eliminated from the national eye. His personal popularity aided his maneuvering. Many Russians view Putin as the strong, decisive figure needed by a sprawling country troubled by corruption, an Islamist insurgency and massive economic inequality.

Putin cultivates an image of absolute certainty, substantial strength and acerbic humor. The 58-year-old’s widely covered pursuits often revolve around “manly” activities, such as hunting, fishing and motorcycling. Photos of a bare-chested Putin have been a hit.

His nomination at a congress of the United Russia party ends months of intense speculation as to whether he would seek to return to the Kremlin or whether he would allow the more mild-mannered and reform-leaning Medvedev to seek another term in next year’s election.

The presidential election, to be held March 4, is preceded by national parliamentary elections on Dec. 4, in which United Russia will seek to retain its dominance; the party has 312 of the 450 seats in the current parliament.

The period for formal submission of presidential candidates’ names has not yet begun, and it is unclear who might choose to challenge Putin for president. Constitutional changes have extended the presidential term to six years from four beginning in 2012, meaning Putin could stay on as president through 2024.

As president, Medvedev called for improvements in Russia’s unreliable court system and for efforts against the country’s endemic corruption. But his initiatives have produced little tangible result. Moving Medvedev to the premiership could set him up to take the brunt of criticism for austerity measures that Putin has warned will be necessary for Russia amid global economic turmoil.

Medvedev’s advisers, likely to lose influence if he moves to the premiership, were clearly disappointed that he would not have another term in the Kremlin to try to continue pursuing reforms, and bristled at political maneuverings.

Medvedev’s presidency held hopes for change “but our political elite made a different decision and chose the path to so-called stability,” Yevgeny Gontmakher of the Medvedev-established Institute for Contemporary Development think-tank, said on Ekho Moskvy radio.

“This filthy deal of the country’s supreme authorities is a blow to the institution of the presidency,” Kremlin-connected analyst Gleb Pavlovsky told the radio station.

Some ordinary Russians also expressed dismay at the maneuverings.

Medvedev has surrendered his post. That is wrong. He should have fought for what he has started and seen it through,” said Vyacheslav Mazurkov, spending a cool afternoon in a central Moscow park.

Putin’s return to the presidency would likely continue or even strengthen the so-called “managed democracy” system he installed in his first stint as president. Under it, opposition parties face high obstacles to winning seats in parliament; of the four parties currently in parliament only the Communists, whose support is dwindling, act as a genuine opposition force.

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