MOSCOW — Looking ahead to an era of uncertainty and economic troubles, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev told Russia on Saturday that they intend to swap jobs, putting the country on an authoritarian path for years to come.
In theory, the switch requires voters’ approval next March, but in practice not much stands in the way, with opposition parties hobbled and Putin’s party dominant.
The move will put Putin back in the presidency after a four-year absence. The two six-year terms he would be allowed under the constitution would take him to 2024, when he will turn 72. Always the stronger of the two, Putin saw the weak Medvedev he nurtured as not up to the job of guiding Russia through a difficult stretch.
“Putin understands that the country will not be going through very easy times,” said Dmitry Oreshkin, an independent political analyst. “Tough decisions will be necessary, so he decided to take over this job.”
Putin sees himself as the indispensable man, but his return to the presidency will be unlikely to change Russia’s essential approach here or abroad — because he has always been in charge. It may send a signal to bureaucrats across the country that the liberal niceties no longer need to be given notice. But more than anything, it is a commitment to preserving as much of the status quo — corrupt, crony politics — as possible.
Putin’s return was widely expected, though it deeply disappointed those who have hoped against hope for a more democratic Russia.
As prime minister, Medvedev said Saturday, he would continue to press for a liberalization of the country. But analysts predict that will amount to nothing more than the gloss he has spread as president.
Putin has always struck a more nationalist and pugilistic tone than Medvedev, and that may continue, but the substance of Russian foreign policy is unlikely to be much changed, analysts say.
Russian leaders have been acutely aware since 2008 that their country is inextricably linked to the rest of the world, economically. Now those links are once more threatening trouble at home. The result is that Russian foreign policy, which strives to find an independent niche between East and West, between China and the United States, will likely take a back seat to domestic issues as crumbling oil prices cut into the revenue of the Russian state.
For a certain segment of the liberal population — those who had clung to the idea of Medvedev as a force for progress — 12 more years of Putin has provoked talk of leaving their country forever. For most Russians, who tuned out politics long ago, it won’t mean much. For the rest of the world, it’s a sign that Russia’s “soft authoritarian” government will continue.
The news came at Saturday’s congress of the ruling United Russia party, a Putin creation. When Medvedev announced that he wasn’t going to run for reelection in March, and asked the delegates to endorse Putin, the crowd at the Luzhniki covered stadium erupted into cheers.
“This applause spares me the need to explain what experience and authority Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin possesses,” Medvedev said.
Then the two men stood together, beaming.
Putin was president from 2000 to 2008, and even after he stepped down because of term limits he remained top dog. Now Medvedev, his hand-picked successor, goes from being No. 2 in all but title to No. 2 in every respect.
United Russia thoroughly dominates Russian politics, by means fair and not so fair. It rewrote the constitution so that presidents will now serve six-year terms instead of four. Its popularity is propped up by its strict control of television—though support has been declining.
Since 2008, Medvedev, 49, and Putin, 58, have styled themselves as the “tandem.” (When Putin was president the first time, prime ministers were afterthoughts.) Medvedev, who came from Gazprom, the giant state-owned natural gas company, was the face of modernization, the leader who carried an iPad and talked about the rule of law and the need to rein in corruption. Putin, who came from the KGB, was the tough guy, the outdoorsman who beat the Chechen separatists in a ruthless war and sent the upstart oil tycoon, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, off to prison camp for a long, long time.
Now Russia is entering “Putin stagnation,” said Oreshkin — for 12 more years, unless the system cracks before then.
Putin said Saturday that he and Medvedev had agreed long ago on this course. But Oreshkin believes that Putin had lost confidence in Medvedev — that having locked him into a subordinate role, Putin became afraid Medvedev wasn’t up to the daunting economic and demographic challenges ahead.
Putin talked at the congress about Russia’s economic problems, though he also promised to raise government salaries and modernize Russian armaments.
Under stress, there has already been a fracturing of Russia’s elite, and that may also have played a role. Yuri Luzhkov, the longtime mayor of Moscow, was fired a year ago. A plan to create a tame opposition party under billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov became an embarrassment. The people around Putin, said Mark Urnov, head of the Expertiza Foundation for Analytical Programs, may have been pushing him to resume the presidency.
“Putin as president is a guarantee to protect the existing distribution of property and power,” he said.
Putin and those he talks to may also have been worried that Medvedev, once elected to a six-year term, might decide he didn’t need to be so dependent on the chief, Oreshkin said.
But Putin’s decision to return, said the opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, “is an indicator of the social and economic crisis.”
At the conference of the opposition Parnas party, which has been refused permission to take part in December’s parliamentary elections, the news of the swap was greeted with laughter.
“It will hasten the collapse of the system,” said Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister who turned against Putin. “The next year will be hard, but 2013 even harder.”
James F. Collins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, said in a recent interview that a Putin presidency would likely set off a round of criticism of the Obama administration’s “reset” of relations with Russia. But anything that Medvedev has said or done in the name of modernization up to now has been done with Putin’s consent, he said.
“The last three years or so have put in place a set of new approaches to the relationship that serves both sides,” he said. “No one doing practical work with Russia thinks anything occurs against Putin’s will.”
Now, it will just be a little clearer. Russia may talk a tougher game under Putin, Urnov said, but in practice little should change. Especially with domestic issues becoming so pressing, Russia won’t be able to afford to go looking for adventures or confrontations abroad.
Researcher Yelena Sorokina contributed to this report.