Although Russia’s next presidential election, in the spring of 2012, is still some way off, one man has already started campaigning: Vladimir Putin. The 57-year-old former KGB spy and current prime minister has repeatedly claimed not to have decided whether he will run. But actions speak louder than words.
In recent weeks, Mr Putin has donned black fingerless gloves to ride a Harley Davidson, turned up in a village destroyed by forest fires to console its newly homeless residents, and – in an admission as surreal as it was bizarre – spoken wistfully of singing patriotic songs with the ten Russian spies recently expelled from the United States. On all three occasions, he used the tough rhetoric that ordinary Russians love and understand. He looked comfortable playing his favourite role: macho man.
Meanwhile, President Dmitry Medvedev, the other man who might contest the presidency in 2012, has played the geeky Kremlin clerk. He has toyed with his new iPad, issued dry directives from the comfort of his Kremlin office, and generally played second fiddle. Yet appearances can be deceiving. Mr Putin’s electioneering is more about preparing public opinion and conditioning perceptions than a genuine popularity contest. More than halfway through Mr Medvedev’s presidential term, almost every serious political analyst still regards Mr Putin as Russia’s most powerful politician. He does not need to campaign in a conventional Western sense. He only needs to go through the motions so that any decision taken by the small coterie of people who rule Russia looks legitimate in the people’s eyes.
Mr Putin bought himself an option to return to the presidency the day he was forced to step down in May 2008 due to a constitutional term limit. It was a neat trick. He nominated a hand-picked loyalist, Dmitry Medvedev, to succeed him as president, and Mr Medvedev promptly returned the favour by appointing Mr Putin as prime minister. Since then, Mr Medvedev, a much softer personality than the flintier Mr Putin, has struggled to be taken seriously as an independent politician. Significantly, Mr Medvedev says he could not imagine running against Mr Putin.
The question: what would the age of Putin Mark II look like? Would it be any different in real terms to the situation today, when Mr Putin continues to call many of the shots from backstage anyway? One thing is certain: if Mr Putin does decide to return to his old job, he could stay there for much longer. Presidential terms have been extended to six years from four years since he stood aside and he would be entitled to serve a further two consecutive terms, potentially allowing him to stay in power until 2024, at which point he would be 72 years old.