(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)
MOSCOW (Reuters Breakingviews) - The uncertainty of the 2012 presidential election will loom over Russia's business climate in 2011. The government's official candidate will win. But who will it be? Will reform-minded incumbent Dmitry Medvedev run for a second term? Or will his steely predecessor, current premier Vladimir Putin, stage a Kremlin come-back?
Conventional wisdom has it for the second scenario, with Medvedev rolling over as if he was his mentor's puppet. But Reuters Breakingviews predicts that -- with Putin's consent -- Medvedev will be allowed another crack at the top job. Here's why:
(1) He wants it. Medvedev's statements leave little doubt. He "doesn't exclude the possibility ... if there is public support" -- politician-speak for "you betcha!" Putin has been far more ambiguous. Both leaders repeat the mantra that the decision will "depend on the situation in the country" -- a formula for continuity. How likely is it that they would suddenly declare the situation so urgent that it requires a leadership change?
(2) He can't be humiliated. Given Medvedev's stated ambitions, his demotion would be an ignominy. This could cause tension within Russia's elite. After three years in the job, Medvedev has appointed numerous state officials, curried favour with business interests, and attracted elements of the intelligentsia with reformist rhetoric. Why disappoint them?
(3) Putin is OK with it. He has no reason to be unhappy with the status quo. Above all, he values stability. Russia weathered the global economic crisis without serious upheavals. Despite economic challenges, Putin remains popular. Medvedev's ratings have risen steadily and he is now as popular as Putin: he can now be "sold" to the public.
(4) Russia doesn't want to be a joke. Putin's return to the Kremlin would be viewed negatively in the West. It would be seen as a conservative backlash. That would be inconvenient to Putin as he devotes much of his energy to promoting Russian business interests abroad. Medvedev's pro-Western reputation helps him make up for Russia's poor image.
(5) The hard-liners' power isn't absolute. The popular view that Putin is hostage to ex-KGB hardliners who will insist on his return to the Kremlin exaggerates their influence. Putin's decision to anoint Medvedev as his heir three years ago showed that he's the one who decides. This will also be the case in 2012.
(Editing by Pierre Briançon and David Evans)