RUSSIANS GOT a sneak preview of the president they are going to pick in next year's elections, and it's increasingly apparent that it won't be the incumbent, Dmitry Medvedev.
Instead, it looks like the current prime minister, Vladimir Putin, will be returning to the job he held until he bumped up against the constitutional limit of two consecutive terms, which to his credit and the surprise of some he observed without leaning on parliament to create a loophole.
Medvedev legally could run for a second term, but it would surely mean an ugly break with Putin, his longtime mentor from their days in the St. Petersburg city government who handpicked him for the presidency.
If Medvedev was going to break out on his own, he was widely expected to tip his hand, if not make an outright announcement, at a large annual political meeting in Yaroslavl, not far from Moscow.
Perhaps noting the inauspicious absence of key Cabinet ministers and political figures, Medvedev instead stuck to his prepared 30-minute speech on the government's approach to diversity.
Ellen Barry of The New York Times wrote: "By the time he took his seat, the implication seemed clear: Mr. Medvedev was not prepared to fight for his job."
All this year, Putin has acted very much like a candidate on the campaign trail, photographed scuba diving, hunting, fishing, motorcycle riding, at the controls of an aircraft, much like a Slavic version of John Kerry in 2004.
Putin is enormously popular in Russia both personally and politically. He could easily win another election to either post, president or prime minister, even without cheating, although as a precaution the Kremlin has kept organized opposition to a minimum.
It's not out of the question that Putin might stay on as prime minister. Medvedev's fate is not so clear. But Russia recently extended the term of future presidents to six years, and many find it hard to envision the publicity-loving Putin sharing the spotlight that long.