Fears that Vladimir Putin was railroading Russia into an outright dictatorship grew last night as he prepared to return to the presidency and set course to be the country's longest-serving leader since Josef Stalin.
The Russian prime minister's acceptance of the presidential nomination from his own ruling United Russia party means the former KGB agent is guaranteed to return to the Kremlin for a third time in 2012 with the scope to rule until 2024. He will be 71 years old in 2024.
Critics said his return meant the country was likely to be rocked by social unrest in the years ahead. It would suffer a brain drain, continued capital flight, and "a tightening of the screws".
"Putin will provoke a mutiny among the Russian people," said Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and a member of Russia's opposition. "He will provoke people with his refusal to step down."
He predicted that $100bn (€74bn) would leave the country in capital flight and up to 800,000 disenchanted people would emigrate.
Mr Putin was offered the top job in a stage-managed event in Moscow on Saturday.
Dmitry Medvedev, the current president, said he thought Mr Putin should run for the presidency and Mr Putin agreed, saying it was "a great honour". Mr Medvedev is likely to swap jobs and become prime minister next year.
Mr Putin remains popular among ordinary Russians, but in the West, he is regarded as a neo-Soviet hawk who has a reputation for stifling dissent.
Russia faces a presidential vote in March, but the outcome is now a formality as Mr Putin's party controls state media and the levers of power. (© Daily Telegraph, London)