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Former president and current Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will seek a third presidential term in the elections coming up in March 2012. Putin relinquished the presidency in 2008 to his protégé, Dimitry Medvedev, because of a constitutional requirement that prevented him from seeking a third consecutive 4-year term.
The announcement, made at the United Russia party congress by President Medvedev, came after weeks of speculation that Putin might grant his crony his own second term — something the Russian president had hinted last May he wanted. But Putin, who pushed through a measure that extended the president’s term to 6 years, decided otherwise, further humiliating Medvedev by having him break the news to the Russian people.
There really was never a question if Putin would run, only when. At 58 years old and in robust health, Putin could serve as president until 2024 — longer than Brezhnev and nearly as long as Stalin.
But it is in the international arena that Putin’s return raises the most concern. A fierce nationalist, he charted his own path in foreign policy and, while demonstrating a pragmatic streak with regard to international trade, his security policy threatened neighbors like Georgia and Ukraine, as well as former satellites in Eastern Europe. And his dealings with Iran and general meddling in the Middle East — usually opposing US interests — would make a third Putin term a cause for some alarm for friends of Israel and other US allies in the region.
Since Putin has all but eliminated serious opposition to his United Russia party through intimidation and heavy restrictions on the ability of other parties to get their message out in the state-controlled media, he should breeze to victory next March.
But even without the restrictions and heavy handedness, it is likely that he would win anyway. His policies have proved to be popular with the average Russian who supported his breakup of the state-controlled oligarchies and his bringing order to the chaos that had marked post-Soviet Russia. The slow strangling of freedom brought about by Putin’s asserting control over the state apparently takes second place in the average Russian’s mind to the rapidly increasing living standards that Putin’s reforms brought about.
His successor liberalized the economy further, selling off state assets and loosening controls on business. But Medvedev’s changes also brought about economic troubles. Russia is thriving largely as a result of the 10 million barrels of oil it produces every day, as well as the export of other natural resources. But oil production has peaked and the rising demand for consumer goods means that sometime in the next few years, Russia will be buying more from abroad than it will be exporting. This imbalance will mean that foreign investment will need to increase — something the creaky, top-down Russian system of government may find difficult to achieve. The result may be stagflation, rising unemployment, and falling living standards — a sure-fire recipe for civil unrest.
Putin is supporting Medvedev for prime minister, which has caused a rift in the senior levels of government with reformers. Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, one of the only officials trusted by foreign investors in the Russian government, says he would step down if Medvedev was made prime minister. Kudrin wanted the office for himself and would chafe at serving under Medvedev again, given their disagreements over liberalization.
It is unlikely that Putin will radically change course, continuing the reforms begun by his successor, simply because he will have to. “Russians will continue down the road of privatization and diversification away from oil, not because they like to, but because they will be forced to,” said Ivan Tchakarov, chief economist for Renaissance, a Moscow investment bank.
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