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.

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