The NEWSWEEK 50: Russia's Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin officially stepped down from the job last May, but he remains firmly in power. He can and probably will run for president again in 2012. If he chooses to do that, his return to power will likely be no more than a formality. His handpicked successor in the Kremlin, 43-year-old lawyer Dmitry Medvedev, seems to wield little real clout, while the real decisions are still made by Putin, now prime minister, and Putin's old Kremlin staff. At a recent cabinet meeting, Medvedev put a question to a minister—only to have the answer brusquely cut off by Putin. "Why are we discussing this? That's already been decided," Putin snapped, overruling his supposed boss, according to one Kremlin insider who was present at the meeting. Russia's Constitution allows Putin to stand again at the end of Medvedev's term in 2012, and there's little doubt among Russia's political class that Putin intends a return to the throne. Asked about coming back to the top job during a recent phone-in, Putin said Medvedev will serve his full four-year term as president—but pointedly refused to comment on his own plans. (Story continued below...)

Meanwhile, Medvedev has been preparing the ground for Putin's comeback and pushing through a constitutional change to extend future presidential terms to six years— so Putin, if he stands in 2012, could be president till 2024. Still, the growing economic crisis could derail the Kremlin's carefully laid succession plans. During the good times of high oil prices, Putin enjoyed approval ratings close to 80 percent. But the holes in the Russian economy are beginning to show: the stock market has plummeted 70 percent and the ruble is down nearly 40 percent since the summer. And despite the Kremlin's stranglehold on the media and destruction of any real political opposition, both Putin and Medvedev are sagging in the polls. They may yet have to work to win.