MOSCOW, Sep 25 – Russia on Sunday prepared for Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012 elections even as two top officials dramatically broke ranks with his plan for a historic third presidential mandate.
President Dmitry Medvedev, who took over the Kremlin from Putin in 2008, announced a day earlier that he would step aside for the incumbent prime minister in the March 2012 polls and instead serve as government chief.
The long-awaited announcement at the United Russia congress ended months of uncertainty over which of the men would stand and was greeted with howls of dismay by liberals who predicted that the country was heading for catastrophe.
The job swap will allow Putin to extend his brand of strongman rule — which has sometimes antagonised the West — potentially up to 2024, while Medvedev can press on with his trademark programme of modernisation as head of government.
But there were signs of discontent within the ruling elite, with Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin declaring he had no intention of serving in a Medvedev government and chief Kremlin economics advisor Arkady Dvorkovich making no secret of his displeasure.
“There is no cause for joy,” said Dvorkovich, who had publicly urged the president to stand for a second term. “It’s a good time to switch over to a sports channel,” he wrote on Twitter.
Kudrin, who has been finance minister since 2000, said that he “unconditionally refused” to be in a government under Medvedev and revealed for the first time he had major policy differences with the incumbent president.
“I do not see myself in the new government. It’s not just that nobody offered me anything. I think that the differences that I have will not allow me to be in this government,” Russian news agencies quoted Kudrin as saying.
But Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said bluntly that “if someone does not agree with the strategic approaches of the tandem then that person will leave the team.”
Responding to a Twitter follower who asked “how are you doing, Arkady?”, Dvorkovich appeared to admit his comments had caused a storm. “I’d be best off now on the ice hockey rink in a goaltender’s (protective) outfit.”
The opposition were due to hold a rally in central Moscow sanctioned by the authorities to protest against Putin’s re-election bid later on Sunday but it would be a major surprise if the rally mustered more than a few hundred people.
As the candidate of United Russia, Putin is almost certain to win the country’s top job in the March elections due to the emasculated state of the Russian opposition and the Kremlin’s control over the media.
It marks a dramatic comeback to the presidency for the former KGB officer, who installed his former chief of staff as president when he left the Kremlin in 2008 after serving a maximum two consecutive terms.
Putin first became president when Boris Yeltsin dramatically resigned on New Year’s Eve 1999. He restored Russia’s stability during a period of high oil prices but was also accused of imposing an authoritarian regime.
Under constitutional changes pushed forward by Medvedev and which many long suspected were aimed at further strengthening Putin, the new president will have a six-year mandate rather than four years as before.
If Putin again serves the two maximum consecutive terms, he could stay in power until 2024, by which time he would be 72 and the longest-serving Moscow leader since dictator Josef Stalin.
The March presidential elections will be preceded by legislative elections on December 4 which will be a crucial test of the ruling elite’s popular support and where Medvedev will head the list of United Russia.
The liberal opposition People’s Freedom Party, whose leaders include former cabinet minister Boris Nemtsov and ex-prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov is banned from taking part after the authorities refused to register it.
Nemtsov predicted that Putin’s return to the Kremlin would trigger capital flight and immigration as well as making the Russian economy even more dependent on its oil exports.
“This is a catastrophic scenario for Russia,” he told Moscow Echo radio.