Like a middle-aged former intelligence agent riding half-naked on a horse through the mountains – exactly like that, as it happens – Vladimir Putin returns! The two-term Russian president who has spent four years as the country's prime minister, in deference to term limits, will return to the presidency, Putin and his party announced on Saturday.
The development was anticipated, even if it was not the ending most desired by President Dmitri Medvedev, who Putin tapped to succeed him as president four years ago. Medvedev announced Putin's impending return in an address to members of United Russia, the party of which both men are members. Doesn't sound like he enjoyed the experience. Medvedev's voice was "cracking with emotion," The New York Times reported, even as his audience cheered happily for Putin's return.
Casual observers can be forgiven for thinking Putin never actually left. Throughout Medvedev's tenure, Putin was the more internationally famous of the two, and the one more likely to make news about Russia and its foreign policy designs. Witness, for example, the news wires just one day before Medvedev made his departure official. The person who was declaring that Russia would spur a boom in shipping through the Northeast passage and dominate Arctic commerce in an age of melting ice caps was not the president:
Russia's ambitious plans are part of the Kremlin's bid to mark out its stake over the energy-rich Arctic as climate change is beginning to open up at last as polar ice recedes.
"It is transport -- the creation of new sea and air corridors -- that is capable of becoming one of breakthrough projects uniting Arctic states," Putin said.
Reaction outside the confines of the United Russia party was not restricted to standing ovations.
Bloomberg News assigns a dollar value to the uncertainty over succession in Russia, specifically whether Medvedev, the preferred choice of some international investors, would be permitted to remain as president despite Putin's wishes. The result of that uncertainty was $31.2 billion in "capital flight," the news service reported. (Though it's hard to see how such an out-migration of funds could be linked exclusively to that particular uncertainty.) The mood of investors about the return of the tiger-grappling former president was dour.
The only positive aspect of the news of Putin’s return was “that it brings more clarity for investors,” said Sergey Dergachev, who helps manage $8.5 billion in emerging market debt at Union Investment in Frankfurt.
“But the negatives outweigh in my view, as even though everybody knew that Putin de facto led the country during Medvedev’s presidential term, Medvedev was associated with more liberalism and more investor-friendly rhetoric,” he said. “Whether Putin will follow these issues is to be seen.”
Similarly pessimistic are democracy-minded reformers, who see Putin as a "strongman," in the Associated Press' formulation, and his return to power as a set back for Russia's constitutional processes. And some within Russia shared that view, as the AP reported:
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 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.
Don't act so surprised, The Economist instructs. Today's news is "the return of the man who never left." The magazine is far less sanguine about Medvedev's record on liberalization and broadening the freedom to act for private individuals and businesses. The real question now is whether the new Putin will act like the Putin of old.
Once he returns to the presidency Mr Putin, a man with no apparent ideological convictions, may decide that the only way to ensure his continuity in power is to move the economy away from its dependence on resource extraction, to clamp down on graft and adopt a new policy towards Russia's restive regions. Unlike today's announcement, that would be genuine news.
Genuine news and a genuine challenge for any leader, even one with the centralized power base of a restored Vladimir Putin. A challenge as difficult as bending a frying pan with one's bare hands. Though, if you think about it that way...