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Putin ready to return as Russian president

Sep 24, 2011, 10:21 a.m.
Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev (R) and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin walk along tha stage to address the audience during the United Russia congress in Moscow September 24, 2011. REUTERS/Denis Sinyakov

By Timothy Heritage and Guy Faulconbridge

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Vladimir Putin declared on Saturday that he planned to reclaim the Russian presidency in an election next March that could open the way for the former KGB spy to rule until 2024.

The announcement, greeted by a standing ovation at a congress of the prime minister's ruling United Russia party, ended months of speculation over whether he or President Dmitry Medvedev would run.

The two have ruled in a power 'tandem' since Putin was forced by the constitution to yield the presidency in 2008 after serving a maximum two consecutive terms, and Putin said they had agreed several years ago how to divide power between them.

It was Medvedev who proposed his mentor return as president before thousands of party members in a Moscow sports stadium.

"It is a great honor for me," Putin told the audience. "Thank you, I hope for your support."

Putin, 58, described in leaked U.S. diplomatic cables as the "Alpha dog" in the tandem, then left the stage and embraced Medvedev. He also proposed his younger and more liberal protege replace him as prime minister after the election to lead a young reformist government.

Over 11 years in power, Putin has cultivated the image of a vigorous leader and been filmed riding bare chested on horseback, scuba diving and showing his judo skills.

His policies -- crushing a Chechen separatist rebellion, taming super-rich businessmen and bringing wayward regions to heel -- have similarly won him popularity among Russians.

But critics say his return to the Kremlin, virtually unopposed, could herald an era of economic and political stagnation in the world's largest country.

In an initial reaction, Washington said it expected to keep making progress in the "reset" in relations with Moscow, whoever was the next Russian president.

"While we have had a very strong working relationship with President Medvedev, it's worth noting that Vladimir Putin was prime minister throughout the reset," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said.

MEDVEDEV TO HEAD PARTY LIST

In carefully choreographed scenes, Putin had earlier on Saturday proposed Medvedev, 46, to lead United Russia's list of candidates for a parliamentary election on December 4.

This will prepare Medvedev for a role in government. The move is also intended to help reverse a decline in support for United Russia and boost its hopes of maintaining its two-thirds majority in the State Duma lower house.

"I want to say directly: (Medvedev and I) reached an agreement between ourselves long ago, several years ago, on what to do in the future, on who should do what," Putin said.

"But both I and Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev believe that this is far from being the most important thing -- who will do what, who will sit in what place. What is far more important is something else: how we will all work, what results we achieve, and what the citizens of our country think of this."

Opinion polls show other potential candidates, such as nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky or Communist Gennady Zyuganov, have much less support and Putin will easily be elected.

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