Vladimir Putin, Russia's current premier and former president gave the clearest signal to date that he may return to his old job, saying that he and his hand-picked successor President Dmitry Medvedev, will decide who runs in 2012.
Supremely confident in a two and a half hour question and answer session with the Valdai Club, an annual meeting of some 45 Russia experts from around the world, Mr. Putin also gave his most detailed assessment of relations with the U.S. since President Barack Obama visited Moscow in July. Mr. Putin said he was "mildly optimistic" over the so-called reset in relations between the two countries, but was waiting to see concrete measures.
The 56-year old premier and judo enthusiast said he and Mr. Medvedev would decide together who should run for president in the next elections, due in 2012, taking into account the situation in the country at the time, their own personal plans, and the United Russia party, which Mr. Putin heads.
After two terms in office, Mr. Putin was obliged by the terms of Russia's constitution to step down in 2008. The constitution has since been changed to extend presidential terms to 6 years each. That means that if Mr. Putin were to return to office, he could potentially remain until 2024.
Mr. Putin rejected any suggestion that such a process would be undemocratic. He compared it favorably with the recent transfer of power in the United Kingdom, where then Prime Minister Tony Blair handed over to Gordon Brown without an election. Under Britain's parliamentary system, prime ministers are chosen by the winning political party, and not by direct election.
Calmly dismissive, Mr. Putin also stamped on suggestions that there is friction between the two men. "Was there any competition [between them] in 2007? Then there won't be any in 2012," said Mr. Putin.
In a national address published on his website and in national newspapers this week, Mr. Medvedev delivered a withering assessment of Russia's oil-dependent economy, rampant corruption and "weak democracy." But he called for a go-slow approach to reforms. Since he came to power last year, Mr. Medvedev has sought to create an image as a liberal modernizer, but the 43 year-old is widely viewed as the less-powerful partner in Russia's ruling duo, according to the Wall Street Journal.