President Vladimir Putin will leave office after his second term expires next March, but he probably won't be moving far from his present Kremlin office.
His bombshell announcement that he intends to run for the State Duma as leader of the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party in December polls suggests that he may well be running Russia for many years to come — as prime minister in a changed constitutional system that diminishes presidential powers and heightens the authority of parliament, experts say.
"It's pretty clear that the plan for transition from the Putin era means graduating to a new Putin era," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Centre for Political Information in Moscow. "Not all the cards are on the table yet, but we can see the general outlines of the succession plan now, and it all spells more Putin," he says.
Speaking at a United Russia conference on Monday, Putin stunned Russians by announcing his intention to run for parliament at the head of the Party's electoral list.
No post-Soviet Russian president has ever joined a political party before, in order to maintain the sense that the Kremlin stands above the political fray and keep a distance from the Communist era, when all leaders were party members.
Russia's Constitution limits a president to two four year terms of office, and Putin has repeatedly said he will obey that rule.
But few precedents exist in Russian history for a supreme leader, at the height of his powers, to walk away from the job.
Speculation has been rife for months that Putin might amend the Constitution to allow a third term — as leaders in neighbouring Belarus and Kazakhstan have recently done — or find another way to hang on to his authority. The answer to that question now appears evident. According to the independent Levada Centre, a polling agency, Putin's public approval rating in August stood at 80 per cent.
A top United Russia official, Andrei Vorobyov, said on Tuesday that Putin's move into the party will virtually guarantee it a two-thirds majority in the 450-seat parliamentary lower house.
"The fact that Putin will go to elections together with the party gives us confidence that United Russia will be able to form a parliamentary majority faction in the fifth State Duma," Vorobyov said.
Asked whether he might seek the PM's job if United Russia wins the elections, Putin responded: "Heading the government is quite a realistic proposal, but it's too early to think about that."
Under Russia's 1993 Constitution, most power is vested in the presidency, with the Duma enjoying largely ceremonial functions.
The president nominates the PM, and the Duma is given three chances to ratify his choice. If parliament rejects the nominee, the president is empowered to dissolve the Duma and call new elections.
It remains unclear who Putin will promote as his successor in the president's job, which will be settled in elections slated for March.
But all Russia's presidential hopefuls might have to take note that the job they're vying for may be due for a downgrade.
Most experts believe Putin will seek Constitutional amendments to evolve Russia's system into a more parliament-centred one, in which the leader of the majority party becomes PM and the president's authority is limited to foreign affairs and ceremonial head-of-state functions. "Putin understands that power has become too concentrated, and he wants to take steps to correct that," says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected analyst.