Strongman Putin tightens grip on Russia

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) attend the Victory Day parade at Red Square in Moscow on May 9, 2009. Photo/FILE

Vladimir Putin's expected return to the Kremlin in 2012 will extend the dominance of a leader who has already forged the lives of a generation of post-Soviet Russians.

President Dmitry Medvedev's carefully choreographed offer for Putin to take over the Kremlin in March polls smashed any remaining illusions about who really holds the reins of power in Russia.

Even in his current post as prime minister, Putin has remained Russia's most popular political figure since rising to the presidency in 2000 and then keeping his adoring fans happy by exploits including piloting fighter jets and racing cars.

He has still been welcoming top world business leaders to Moscow to give his blessing on mega contracts including the recent deal with ExxonMobil to explore Russia's Arctic energy riches.

"The country's most influential person returns to the most powerful post," Carnegie Moscow Centre analyst Maria Lipman told AFP.

"They want to leave everything as it is for the next 12 years," veteran liberal opposition leader Grigory Yavlinsky wrote on his Twitter account. "And that means for ever."

Under a constitutional change that extended the presidential term to a six year mandate, Putin could serve two terms to 2024 and become Moscow's longest serving leader since Joseph Stalin.

Putin himself did little to dissuade ideas that he held the true power by telling his United Russia party faithful on Saturday that "nothing can knock you from your saddle".

"I have still not lost my commander's voice," he said to another rousing round of applause.

The idea that the prime minister stage-managed Russian politics while his one-time chief of staff Medvedev kept his place warm for four years under a pre-arranged agreement emerged almost as soon Putin left the Kremlin in 2008.

Close observers of Russian politics said there were some questions until the last moment about whether Medvedev would really step down without a fight.

"They wanted to avoid creating a lame duck president," leading commentator Alexei Venediktov told Moscow Echo radio station.

"But it seem that the level of turbulence in the ruling elite forced the announcement" before December's parliamentary polls, Venediktov said.

Medvedev had done little formal campaigning in the weeks before Saturday's announcement while the press pointed to polling data showing his election rating topping off at less than 30 percent.

"Dmitry Medvedev did not justify expectations. There is not the slightest hint that a single one of the tasks he set was implemented," liberal journalist Mikhail Fishman wrote in a scathing commentary in the Vedomosti daily.

"Instead of a reformer, we got a seat-warmer," Fishman wrote.

Medvedev will now go down in history as Russia's only single-term president whose term coincided with the world economic crisis and who never was able to outshine his prime minister while in charge.

"This is a blow to the prestige of the Russian presidency as an institution," said political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky.

The analyst -- a one-time non-paid Kremlin adviser who was dismissed earlier this year -- accused Medvedev of "selling out" his supporters.

The country's fractured and enfeebled opposition meanwhile scoffed at the switch as a sign of political nihilism and possible future doom.

"This government will collapse. That is certain," said ex-premier turned opposition leader Mikhail Kasyanov.

The Communist Party's perennial presidential contender Gennady Zyuganov for his part grumbled simply that "the government will remain as unqualified and unprofessional as it has always been."