By JIM HEINTZ
MOSCOW - Vladimir Putin's decision to reclaim the presidency next year sets up the possibility that he could rule Russia until 2024 and foreshadows a continuation of the strongman rule that many in the West have called a retreat from democracy.
Although Putin departed the Kremlin in 2008 due to term limits and moved about two kilometers (1.5 miles) down the road to the prime minister's office, in a sense he never left at all. He cannily used Russia's state-controlled national TV channels to remain the country's pre-eminent political figure, with appearances portraying himself as a bold adventurer in Russia's wilderness, a vigorous advocate of the country's global importance and, occasionally, as a bit of a rogue consorting with scruffy motorcyclists.
His hand-picked successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev, appeared as little more than a tame youngster in comparison - enthusing about Twitter and issuing earnest statements about the need for reforms, but achieving few tangible results.
"He didn't do anything important, and I'm pretty sure they didn't let him do anything," said Vyachelsav Mazurkov, who was spending a cool fall afternoon in a Moscow park soon after the congress of Russia's dominant political party approved Putin's candidacy. Although Medvedev had shown flashes of independence, particularly in denouncing the corruption that flourished during Putin's presidency, he was seen by many as simply a placeholder while Putin bided his time until he could legally return.
If he wins the March 4 election - a near-certainty given his popularity and mastery of Russia's political system - Putin will return to a presidency even more powerful than when he left. In 2012, the presidential term will be extended to six years from four; he would be eligible to serve two terms and just a few weeks shy of turning 59, the avid martial-arts fan's health appears robust.
In nominating Putin, his United Russia party also approved his proposal that Medvedev take over Putin's current role as prime minister, the No. 2 government position.
Putin's return to the presidency would be unlikely to ease Russia's dispute with the United States over the building of a European missile-defense system and other issues. Economic pressures, however, could push Putin to pursue reforms aimed at attracting more foreign investment, analysts said.
During his presidency, Putin ruled Russia with a steely command, bringing about a system known as "managed democracy" that saw opposition politicians all but eliminated from the national eye. His personal popularity aided his maneuvering. Many Russians view Putin as the strong, decisive figure needed by a sprawling country troubled by corruption, an Islamist insurgency and massive economic inequality.
The presidential election is preceded by national parliamentary elections on Dec. 4, in which United Russia will seek to retain its dominance; the party has 312 of the 450 seats in the current parliament. The period for formal submission of presidential candidates' names has not yet begun, and it is unclear who might choose to challenge Putin for president.
As president, Medvedev called for improvements in Russia's unreliable court system and for efforts against the country's endemic corruption. But his initiatives have produced little tangible result. Moving Medvedev to the premiership could set him up to take the brunt of criticism for austerity measures that Putin has warned will be necessary for Russia amid global economic turmoil.
Medvedev's advisers, likely to lose influence if he moves to the premiership, were clearly disappointed that he would not have another term in the Kremlin to try to continue pursuing reforms, and bristled at political maneuverings.
Medvedev's presidency held hopes for change, "but our political elite made a different decision and chose the path to so-called stability," Yevgeny Gontmakher of the Medvedev-established Institute for Contemporary Development think-tank said on Ekho Moskvy radio.
"This filthy deal of the country's supreme authorities is a blow to the institution of the presidency," Kremlin-connected analyst Gleb Pavlovsky told the radio station.
However, a spokesman for the powerful Russian Orthodox Church praised the move lavishly.
"This is a real example of goodness and morality in politics, an example that could be envied not only by our predecessors, people who lived in Soviet times, but citizens of the majority of countries in the world, including those who try to teach us," Father Vsevolod Chaplin was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.
Putin's return to the presidency would likely continue or even strengthen the "managed democracy" system he installed in his first stint as president. Under it, opposition parties face high obstacles to winning seats in parliament; of the four parties currently in parliament only the Communists, whose support is dwindling, act as a genuine opposition force.
Opposition groups' attempts to hold rallies are rarely approved by authorities and unsanctioned gatherings are quickly broken up by police. All major television channels are under state control and rarely present opposition views.
Under Medvedev, Russia's relations with the West have been less tense, even though there has been little change in Russia's domestic politics. The improved relations with Washington largely reflected President Barack Obama's "reset" initiative. It is unclear if Obama will win a second term next year to continue the policy with Putin in the Kremlin.
Despite Medvedev's statements of reformist intent, Russia remained under strong Western criticism. A report by the U.S.-based NGO Freedom House last year said "there has been a steady erosion of the content, if not the formal institutions, of Russian democracy."
In a visit to Russia in March, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden exhorted Russians: "Don't compromise on the basic elements of democracy. You need not make that Faustian bargain."
The U.S. also wants to put elements of a missile-defense system in Europe, saying it is needed to counter the threat of attack from rogue nations such as Iran. But Russia has disputed the need, saying the defense missiles could instead be aimed at it, a stance that is unlikely to change with Putin back at the presidency.
Putin started a carefully orchestrated series of maneuvers at Saturday's session of the party congress in a Moscow sports arena by proposing that Medvedev head the party list for the December elections. Medvedev then proposed that Putin be the party's presidential candidate, and Putin returned to the stage to accept the proposal and express support for Medvedev as prime minister.
On his return to the stage, he found the microphone had been turned off temporarily, but said with a smile "I will speak louder. My commander's voice has not yet been lost."
The congress approved the moves with no apparent opposition. Despite growing discontent among ordinary Russians with the party, United Russia exerts such an overwhelming presence in the country's politics that Putin's election and Medvedev's switch to the premiership are virtually ensured.
Many connect Putin with Russia's turnaround from post-Soviet poverty to prosperity, largely driven by high prices for Russia's vast supplies of oil and natural gas. But growing awareness of the need to move beyond a natural-resources economy could force Putin in a new term as president to pursue reforms, some analysts say.
"I expect Putin will establish a very pro-business and pro-reform Cabinet," said Chris Weafer, chief strategist of the Russian investment bank Troika Dialog.
Putin also proposed Saturday that Russia's richest citizens face higher taxes. The flat income tax that came into effect during Putin's 2000-2008 presidency has been widely praised as improving tax collection and Putin's proposal would not change that, but he called for increases in consumption and real estate taxes that hit the rich comparatively harder.
--- Vladimir Isachenkov and Lynn Berry in Moscow contributed to this report.