Will Putin Go from President to Prime Minister?

"Astonishing, unexpected, sensational." These are the words used tonight as lead-ins to news bulletins broadcast on Russia's government-controlled TV channels. President Vladimir Putin, whose term ends in March 2008, announced Monday that he would run for a seat in Russia's parliamentary elections to be held Dec. 2 -- and the current president hinted he could even be Russia's next prime minister. A standing ovation followed.

While more than 800 journalists from the Russian press accredited at the congress amplify Putin's possible political future, ordinary Russians were hardly surprised, let alone treated it as a sensation.

"What would you expect? He's a fit man of only 55, raised the country from ruin to prosperity. It never crossed my mind that he'd retire. It's great that at least he's now looking for a democratic way to stay in power," teacher Rita Aliyev told ABC News. Mikhail Barabanov, a young construction worker added, "I now enjoy a good life -- something my parents could've only dreamed about. I prayed Putin would be president for as long as possible." After March 2008 he may not be president any longer, but much of Russia's fate may still be vested with him -- this time as prime minister.

Monday, more than 500 delegates and 2,500 guests from across the country kicked off the election campaign of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party. The party has a huge majority in the current Parliament, holding 305 out of the 450 seats. They gathered at the Gostiny Dvor congress hall just a few hundred yards from the Kremlin, for a two-day conference widely covered by state TV. No balloons, flags or music. This was a somber, almost Soviet-style affair. During the congress, United Russia will finalize its list of candidates for the December State Duma (Russian Parliament) elections. Putin was a guest at the gathering.

United Russia is the only political party whose gatherings the president attends, although not an official party member, and he has consistently thrown his support behind the party that he helped create as his power base. The suspense was left hanging till the meeting's end -- the congress proposed that Vladimir Putin should top its ballot list. The president accepted with gratitude. The agreement virtually guaranteed him a place in Parliament

Monday's highlight was Putin's presence and speech. When asked whether he would be prepared to become prime minister in the future, Putin did not rule out the possibility. He accepted the congress's offer, again, with thanks. "Leading the government is a realistic possibility, but it's too early to think about it, since two conditions are yet to be met. Firstly, United Russia must win the Duma elections on Dec. 2. Then, an honest, sensible, effective and modern person must be elected president -- the kind of person I could work with," he said.

United Russia -- United Under Putin?

United Russia is more than likely to win the elections. It now enjoys a popularity rating of 59 percent. Other parties are nowhere near as popular, with the Communist Party at 18 percent and others hardly making the 7 percent threshold to break it into Parliament. Russian political commentator Alexei Pushkov told Russia Today, an English language 24 hour-channel sponsored by the Kremlin, "With Putin heading United Russia I think they may get the constitutional majority, which is over 310 voices. And in this case United Russia becomes a ruling party in the full sense of the word. They can change the constitution and adopt whatever laws."

And this is before Putin comes under the party's wing with his own approval rating of 77 percent. (According to the independent and reliable Levada institute.)

Putin's second condition -- a president he could work with -- is also likely to be met. His two candidates for president are a close friend, ex-minister of defense and KGB colleague Sergei Ivanov, and Dimitry Medvedev, now deputy prime minister and another close associate. With the popularity Putin enjoys among Russians, his recommendation will, in all likelihood, be an indication to the voters as to whom he'd prefer them to support.

President Putin's next words at the congress sounded like campaigning was very much under way. "Our economy has grown by 60 percent over the past seven years. The real income of our citizens more then doubled in that time. We have made the first and most urgent steps in health care and education."

Other words from the floor also sounded like the party's campaign was geared toward Putin. Duma speaker and United Russia leader, Boris Gryzlov, outlined the party's campaign strategy based on its pro-Kremlin platform, unsubtly entitled "Putin's Plan." One of the party's comparably blunt campaign slogans says, "Putin's Plan Is Russia's Triumph!"

Putin has already allowed United Russia to use his image in campaign advertising. Senior party official and campaign chief Andrei Vorobyov told the English-language Moscow Times daily paper that photographs of Putin will figure prominently in the party's campaign.

Where Putin Is, the Power Is

Masha Lipman, a political analyst with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow, told ABC News, "This has added a significant note and adds clarity to earlier enigmatic statements that Putin made. It is logical that he would take the second most powerful office in the country since he vowed that he would step down [as president]. It makes sense that he would become the authority to make the presidency weaker. Wherever Putin is, he's the center of power."

When on Sept. 12 Putin appointed Viktor Zubkov, an unknown junior minister, as Russia's prime minister observers of the Russian political scene were surprised. This was a move much reminiscent of what Putin's predecessor, President Boris Yeltsin, would do -- appoint disposable unknowns to use them as stepping stones. Today, Putin blatantly clarified that move. Zubkov, a functionary with little power base and recognition can be easily demoted and moved aside giving way to the new prime minister.

The opposition bemoans the fact that Russia's media are almost entirely under the Kremlin's control. In a country as vast Russia is, with democratic institutions still to be developed, most Russians get their political guidance form television. Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who intends to run for president next year, called for the opposition to boycott the elections. "Elections under this system will be an imitation of the democratic process rather than a free expression of the will of the people," Kasyanov told the Gazeta newspaper.

Another opposition presidential candidate, chess master Gary Kasparov was not available for comment Monday, but his secretary Dennis Belov told ABC News, "We know the regime has the weapons to use against us, propaganda, the lies on television and force on the street, but Kasparov thinks Russia will face economic and social crises in the coming years. The current regime is undemocratic and our opposition movement will gather further support. However, by doing what he has, Putin will be able to retain his influence for some time to come."

Markets Positive on Putin

The stability of Russia, one of the world's major suppliers of raw materials, particularly oil and gas, is of paramount importance to the United States and the global economy in general. President Putin may have been criticized for his human rights record, particularly for the treatment of the rebellious Republic of Chechnya, but at least he is seen as predictable.

World markets have reacted positively to the prospect of a future Russia with Putin at the helm. Tim Ash, Emerging Markets Economist at Bear Stearns in London told the Reuters news agency, "Markets will appreciate the fact that Putin's strategy is clarifying and that he will remain a dominant player on the political scene. Irrespective of one's view of Putin's democratic credentials, markets respect the stability and prosperity he has brought to Russia, and should react positively to the latest development."

President Putin has always cared about Russia's image. Presenting Russia as a modern and democratic state has been a constant theme of his administration. Few Russian analysts doubted he would break democratic rules and usurp another term in the presidential office. But few doubted that he would step down from what Russians see as very successful leadership. Becoming a leader of the governing party, and perhaps prime minister, is the obvious democratic way out. President Putin once again proved that he is a master at manipulating democracy while adhering to the rules of the game.

Tuesday evening, the United Russia congress will finalize its ballot list and there is little doubt Putin will top it. The next step is leading United Russia in the Duma, then the office of prime minister. Few have ever doubted that the fit, sporty, and first and foremost, effective Putin would retire after his two terms in office as president of the Russian Federation. There has been much speculation on finding legal ways of extending his presidential term. Some of them alien to democratic principles. But there have been equally as many voices advocating a democratic way of keeping Putin in control of Russia. Putin as prime minister is not a new proposal. Many Russian commentators have been speculating on that idea. Today, President Putin himself made it clear that he is not yet willing to leave Russia's future to others. And that he is, and will be, for the foreseeable future very much in control.

Under this scenario, given his popularity among Russians and his deft skills as a powerbroker between rivaling Kremlin clans -- Putin could remain in power from behind the scenes while his weak presidential successor, or a close associate, would play the role of ceremonial president. As commentator Alexei Pushkov told the Russia Today TV channel, "If he becomes Prime Minister, we'll have Putin for the next four years. And in that case who is President will be a secondary question."