Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will return to the Kremlin as president in 2012, ending speculation on the fate of the “national leader” and of the “tandem” he had formed with current President Dmitri Medvedev.  Medvedev nominated Putin on September 24 during the congress of the ruling United Russia party, dashing the hopes of reformers that he would stay for a second term, diminish Putin’s influence, and “modernize” Russia.  Following the March 2012 presidential election, Medvedev will swap jobs with Putin, taking on the unenviable task of heading the cabinet with the world on the cusp of another wave of economic crisis.  Moreover, political strategist Gleb Pavlovsky, long associated with the Medvedev camp, claimed that the president had been blackmailed, yielding to unspecified threats.  The tandem’s political dance amounted to little more than a power struggle in the real Russian system, that of the political/economic “clans” in which Putin plays the pivotal role of mediator.  The switch likely will not have any significant near-term consequences for Washington’s policy of “reset” with Moscow.

While the West and some Russian liberals had entertained the possibility that Medvedev was another Mikhail Gorbachev leading Russia into a second period of perestroika, Putin’s chosen successor’s real power has in fact been quite limited.  It’s probable that his “modernization” rhetoric and anticorruption campaign were mostly cover for an under the carpet battle to boost the fortunes of his clan of “lawyers” and “classmates” (mostly people who went to law school with Medvedev), building a power base by placing them in important positions in the courts and law enforcement, long dominated by Putin loyalists.  His failure to see his plans through told the tale—Medvedev did not have the leverage in the clan world that translates into real political clout, and his broad constitutional powers as president meant little compared with the clan influence Putin commanded.  Both men are of that world, as must be every other Russian who aspires to position and power.

The bargaining and pressuring went on during most of Medvedev’s tenure as president, each team hinting that it had kompromat (compromising material) on the other, each subtly lining up on opposing sides of battles among rival clans that manifested themselves in arrests, criminal investigations, corruption charges, police raids, and the occasional beating or untimely death.  Medvedev began making statements (regarding the Western intervention in Libya, for example) that conflicted with Putin’s, as he apparently fished for Western support.  The stories leaked out: Medvedev was bound by certain “understandings” among key players limiting his real power; Putin’s weight in the “power ministries” (law enforcement and security) outweighed whatever influence Medvedev’s “lawyers” could command in the courts; and Putin’s redistribution of property among his close circle, especially in the key oil industry, undercut whatever influence Medvedev had in the natural-gas monopoly “Gazprom.”  Medvedev’s offers of guarantees of Putin’s safety (and that of key members of his entourage) had not worked.

The behind-the-scenes struggle reached a boiling point as elections to the Duma (the legislature), set for December, and the presidential election approached.  United Russia, the dominant party in a political system managed by the Kremlin, has become increasingly identified with official corruption in the eyes of the public, earning it the unofficial title of “the party of swindlers and thieves.”  Putin, though not a party member, is the acknowledged leader of the “party of power.”  As the political conflict intensified, Medvedev’s team launched its own party project, Pravoye Delo (“Right Cause,” a “right/liberal” coalition) to carry the “modernization” banner in the December Duma elections.  As portrayed by the Kremlin administration, Right Cause was intended to channel urban professionals’ votes to an approved party.  But the Medvedev team had its own plans, including quietly supporting an internet-based campaign denouncing the “party of swindlers and thieves,” while courting provincial governors.  The governors are a key element in controlling elections, since they use their “administrative resources” on the ground, including control over regional and local election commissions, to ensure “correct” election outcomes.

The Putin team aimed for United Russia maintaining its “constitutional majority” in the Duma, a majority large enough to block or initiate constitutional amendments, impeach a president, or boost the powers of the prime minister if necessary.  At that point, Putin’s game was to make sure he held all the cards necessary to set up any arrangement he felt comfortable with for 2012, which may have included a Medvedev second term under certain conditions.  The Medvedev team’s gambit was to undercut United Russia, preventing a constitutional majority in the next Duma, while recruiting other Kremlin-approved “opposition parties,” particularly the Communists, to work together in a coalition to achieve that aim.  At the same time, Putin’s claim to be unofficial “national leader” would be weakened, since he is acknowledged as United Russia’s leader and would likely head the United Russia ticket in December.

The Right Cause project failed in September when the Kremlin’s chosen party leader, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, resigned, partly a victim of intrigues too complex to repeat here, as well as of his own clashes with the Kremlin administration and Medvedev personally.  Medvedev’s strategy had failed.  His supporters had not been able to gain enough leverage to convince key players to come to their side and undercut Putin.  As announced at the United Russia Congress, Putin will be the presidential candidate of the “party of power.”  Medvedev will be premier, facing a possible economic crisis and the reality that Putin can oust him at any time, exercising constitutional powers that Medvedev as president never could.  Moreover, Medvedev is now tied to United Russia, as he will head the party ticket in December.  Nevertheless, as of this writing the presidential elections are nearly six months away, an eternity in Russian politics.  The games will go on.

Putin’s return does not necessarily mean the end of warmer relations between Washington and Moscow in the near term.  Despite the continuation of human-rights rhetoric, the Obama White House is banking on better relations with the Kremlin and sees “reset” as a major achievement.  Differences remain, especially over missile defense, but Washington believes that cooperation with Moscow (on Afghanistan and Iran, for instance) is important.  The Republicans will likely use Putin’s “return” against Obama in the next presidential campaign, casting the administration as naive in placing its hopes in Medvedev.  In any case, Putin will be around for a while: With the presidential term lengthened to six years, Vladimir Putin could be president of Russia until 2024.