MOSCOW, Dec. 3, 2009 -- In an annual televised question and answer session lasting a record four hours today, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin gave some of the strongest hints yet that he is mulling a return to Russia's presidency.
"I will think about it, there is still enough time," he replied when pressed about his political future.
Asked whether he wouldn't rather spend time with his family after dealing with all the problems of politics, Putin replied, "Don't hold your breath."
Shortly after the marathon broadcast finished, President Dmitry Medvedev was asked about his plans for 2012.
"Prime Minister Putin said he doesn't rule out the possibility and I also say I don't rule it out," Medvedev told reporters at a press conference in Rome.
The pair has said in the past they will not run against each other, but rather sit down and decide who the candidate will be. A constitutional amendment proposed by Medvedev when he took office in 2008 allows Putin to seek two more terms. There has been little mention of the role of Russia's electorate since victory is all but assured for whomever they choose to run.
"Prime Minister Putin said he doesn't rule out the possibility and I also say I don't rule it out," Medvedev responded to reporters at a press conference in Rome.
The pair has said in the past they will not run against each other, but would sit down and decide who the candidate will be. A constitutional amendment proposed by Medvedev when he took office in 2008 allows Putin to seek two more terms.
"[Putin's] answer about the possibility of running in 2012 was a little different than in the past," says Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst at Moscow's Carnegie Center, noting that Putin didn't name Medvedev in his answer.
"This time he wasn't trying to say "[I] should decide this with president Medvedev. He avoided a direct answer but sent a clear signal that it not only can't be excluded, but it's very probable."
Lest anyone interpret Putin's comments as a fracture in the "tandem," Putin emphasized that their similar backgrounds and principles allow them to work together "efficiently."
"It's the only thing they can say," says Fyodor Lukianov, an analyst with the Russia In Global Affairs journal. "I think this time [Putin] indicated that the possibility is a little more likely more than before."
Two Million Questions for Putin
More than two million questions were submitted for Putin's eighth and longest-ever question-and-answer session, an annual tradition he started as president.
"He's a sportsman, each time he tries to answer more questions than last time, to have a record," says Petrov. "It's his aim to spend more time and to answer more questions."
Questions came by phone, text message, from the studio audience and factory workers around Russia beamed in by satellite. Hosted by state-run TV, Putin faced a friendly audience armed with carefully selected questions.
Medvedev, in contrast, has never submitted himself to the same treatment.
Today's Q&A was more upbeat than one last December, in part because the economic crisis was front and center in 2009. "The peak of the crisis has been overcome," Putin declared early in today's session.
"Exit from the crisis requires time, strength and considerable funds," he said, pointing to positive trends and taking credit for preventing the worst.
An ardent protector of his man-of-the-people persona, Putin blasted Russia's "nouveau riche" when asked about a young Russian recently wrecking a A Lamborghini sports car on a Swiss highway.
"In Soviet times, some of our rich showed off their wealth by having gold teeth put in," said Putin. "Lamborghinis and other pricey knickknacks, they are simply today's gold teeth."
He wished one woman a heartfelt happy 55th birthday, promised a widow more benefits and told factory workers that higher wages were on the way.
In what has become something of a tradition, he singled out a citizen for a gift. This year Putin said that an elderly woman's monthly pension will be doubled after her home was damaged in the wake of Friday's train blast.
"He creates an image of the father of the nation, the guy who knows everything and is eager to listen to everybody and solve every problem," says Petrov.
"People like that and that is the big difference with Medvedev who is much more sophisticated to the ordinary person," Lukianov agrees.
Putin's Popularity Remains High
It clearly works. Putin enjoys a sky-high 79 percent approval rating, according to the independent Moscow-based Levada Center. That is slightly down from recent months, but an enviable number by any politician's standard. Almost three times as many Russians believe that Putin runs the country rather than Medvedev, a perception few observers dispute.
Helping bolster his father figure image in a time of crisis, the first question selected was about terrorism in the wake of the Nevsky Express train bombing. Putin argued that progress has been made to "break the spine of terrorism, but the threat has not been fully liquidated."
"We need to strengthen our work to this end and, of course, we need to be very tough on criminals that carry out any act of terrorism that encroaches on people's lives and well-being," he added, failing to specify which steps will be taken.
As prime minister, Putin generally avoids wading into international affairs, instead leaving it to Medvedev. But a question about Russia joining the World Trade Organization allowed Putin to take a swipe at the U.S., a reminder of the frosty relations between the U.S. and Russia while he was in office.
"Accession to the WTO remains our strategic goal, but we have the impression that for some unknown reasons, some countries, including the United States, are hindering our accession to the WTO."
The Russian premier sounded resentful while criticizing the U.S. for not repealing the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment that denied the USSR favored nation status for obstructing the emigration of Jews under Soviet rule. He blamed "various lobbying groups" for this "anachronism" that restricts trade.
"As we all understand, there are no restrictions now, and there is no Soviet Union, either, but the amendment is still in place," he said.
The Soviet Union and the man who ran it for most almost three decades were the subject of one of the most sensitive questions of the day. The debate over the legacy of Josef Stalin has come to a boil in recent months as human rights groups accuse the government of glossing over the former dictator's atrocities.
Russian PM "Ambushed" by Stalin Questions?
Putin's comments on Stalin in the past have fueled that criticism. On Wednesday he replied that he would be "ambushed" by whatever he said.
So, he took the middle road by first praising Stalin for industrializing the USSR and winning World War II (known in Russia as "The Great Patriotic War"), and then blasting him for the "unacceptable price" his repressive regime and cult of personality cost the Soviet people.
"I think it's a really interesting example in how skillful he is in public discussion," says Carnegie's Petrov. "Everybody can [take away] what they want."