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Putin Says He Intends To Return To Presidency

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Russia's alpha dog is setting the stage for a comeback next spring. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin plans to return to his old job of president. Back in 2008, he was replaced by his handpicked successor, Dmitri Medvedev. But this weekend, Medvedev announced at a party meeting that he would hand the reins back to Putin and become prime minister. The switch would follow presidential elections next March.

To explain the swap and what's behind it, we're joined now by Julia Ioffe. She's a Moscow correspondent for Foreign Policy magazine and for The New Yorker. Julia, welcome to the program.

JULIA IOFFE: Hi, Michele.

NORRIS: I have to ask you this very basic question just to begin. In Russian politics, who actually has more power, the president or the prime minister?

IOFFE: Well, formally, it's the president, but it's always Putin. There hasn't really been much doubt that he is the one that's been calling all the shots throughout. And this is partly because he has the political capital to do so. He has a very powerful segment of elites lined up around him. He's also still by far the most popular, most loved politician in Russia.

NORRIS: Has Putin explained why he's making the switch?

IOFFE: Well, he said he's always intended to make the switch, that it's not even a switch. He said at the party convention that this was planned a long time ago, probably at the beginning of the time he stepped down as president in 2008 and let Medvedev take control. It's what everybody had assumed. But as the years passed by, people kind of started to let themselves hope, especially among the more liberal, educated, well-traveled elite.

People started to hope that maybe somebody younger, more reform-oriented, more friendly to the West would continue on after Medvedev; which is why people were kind of shocked and disappointed on Saturday.

NORRIS: Well, it sounds like this was a rather tumultuous period in government overall. Today, the Russian finance minister was fired. Help us understand how that fits into this story.

IOFFE: Well, people are still trying to sort it out because it happened at the end of the day. But it seem like the looming economic crisis, which is slowly coming to Russia, kind of forced Putin's hand to announce earlier than planned that he was going to come back as president, to signal that there would be political stability, that people should invest, that people shouldn't worry.

What happened was the Finance Minister, Alexei Kudrin, was in the states, and he criticized Medvedev's fiscal policy. He said he didn't agree with it. So when he came back, Medvedev fired him.

NORRIS: And how important is the role of the Russian finance minister? How much power does he wield?

IOFFE: He - it's hard to overstate Kudrin's importance. He was widely seen as the only competent, rational, uncorrupt person in the government. So his firing deals a really big blow to the legitimacy of Putin's future government and to the legitimacy of Russia as a solid place to invest.

NORRIS: Now, looking ahead to Putin's future government, we noted that the switch would follow presidential elections next March. If the country already knows who's going to be president, does that mean that the elections are almost pro-forma, that it's almost preordained who the next president will be?

IOFFE: Well, the elections here have always kind of been pro-forma since Putin made that way gradually over the course of his two terms as president. But it's very important for Russia to maintain this kind of window dressing of democracy to allow a little bit of protest here and there just to show that they're a democracy and that they can play with the big boys.

NORRIS: Julia Ioffe is a Moscow correspondent for Foreign Policy magazine and also for The New Yorker. Julia, thank you very much.

IOFFE: Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: And Julia Ioffe told us lots of people made bets in Russia about who would be the next president. She bet on Putin, and she told us what she won.

IOFFE: A bottle of Hennessy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NORRIS: Hennessy, not Russian vodka?

IOFFE: No. No, no. No, no. Russians love cognac, little known fact.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.