Assassination plots aside, Vladimir Putin expects to be returned to the Kremlin. But who is the man who has ruled the world’s largest country for longer than anyone since Brezhnev?
On a Friday night last November Vladimir Putin was running three hours late. A group of foreign academics, journalists and selected Russian TV cameras were quarantined in a restaurant in an equestrian centre. Deadlines were lapsing and Putin’s guests began asking questions about the odd location. Everything from the oak beams, log fires and snug bars had been rigged. The venue had been constructed for this one meal.
Putin finally emerged wearing a ski jacket. He stopped short in the entrance with his hands down but away from his sides. An unseen hand removed the puffer jacket, another slipped an elegant sports coat on to his shoulders. Putin hardly paused, but in a flash he had changed roles. He emerged on the other side of this catwalk as the tanned chief executive of Russia Inc.
He had just made the biggest mistake of his career. In front of millions of people, he forced his protege, Dmitry Medvedev, to nominate him for another two terms as president. In a spectacular miscalculation of political timing, Putin had destroyed not only Medvedev’s fledgling career as a reformer but severely damaged his own. He had made nonsense of the elections that followed ”“ a parliamentary vote in December and the presidential one this coming Sunday ”“ because everyone already knew the result. This might have worked for the old Russia ”“ passive, fatalistic, offline ”“ but the new, pushy middle class was not buying it.
Four mass demonstrations later, Putin’s campaign is on a knife edge. He has to be elected president on the first round on Sunday. If he succeeds, most political analysts in Russia are agreed that a third term of office as president will be a transitional one. There is unlikely to be a fourth.