- The Washington Times - Friday, December 4, 2009

MOSCOW | Wagging his pen and gazing directly into the camera, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sent his strongest signal yet Thursday that he plans to return to Russia’s presidency, telling millions of TV viewers that he will consider running in 2012.

The former KGB spy, who retains huge power despite formally stepping down after his eight-year presidency in 2008, turned in an electric performance during his annual marathon call-in show - cementing his high rating among the electorate and his reputation as Russia’s No. 1 leader.

Asked whether he was leaving the political stage, Mr. Putin grinned and said: “Don’t hold your breath.”

The St. Petersburg native declared that he would “think about it, there is still enough time,” when questioned on his intent to run again for president.

Although his words were short of an outright declaration, the fact that he would admit to considering a run underlined his steely ambition. There is almost no doubt Mr. Putin would win - because of his genuine popularity and the overwhelming political dominance of his United Russia party.

“While he coyly said it’s too early for a decision, it certainly looked like he has already decided” to return to the presidency in 2012, said Nikolai Petrov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center.

President Dmitry Medvedev, on a visit to Italy, told reporters after the call-in show that “if Putin doesn’t rule out running, neither do I rule myself out” for 2012. He also said that he and Mr. Putin will act as “responsible politicians” and reach agreement on the 2012 election to avoid “elbowing one another” - echoing previous comments by Mr. Putin.

Mr. Putin’s demeanor was no less presidential than any of his appearances from 2000 to 2008. He switched tones effortlessly from coarse to lighthearted, from flippant to wise.

In dealing with questions from a mostly sycophantic audience in the slick, stage-managed event, Mr. Putin was at times the efficient bureaucrat, concerned father and learned economist.

A return to the president’s corner office in the Kremlin would mark an end to the power-sharing arrangement he engineered with Mr. Medvedev.

Mr. Putin, 57, has remained Russia’s consummate leader since constitutional term limits forced him to step down in 2008. He named Mr. Medvedev as his anointed successor and, shortly after the election, Mr. Medvedev named him prime minister.

The premiership had been a comparatively low-profile position, but Mr. Putin has pushed it into the spotlight, logging more TV time in the Medvedev era than the president himself. Mr. Medvedev has appeared to be little more than a figurehead and placeholder.

In the past year, Mr. Medvedev has made tentative forays out of Mr. Putin’s long shadow, with somewhat veiled criticisms of the corruption that plagued Russia under Mr. Putin. But his mild manners and legalistic, often-opaque remarks have been no match for Mr. Putin’s vigorous, tough-guy image and slangy remarks.

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