A senior ally of Vladimir Putin has said his party would be ready to nominate Mr Putin for the Russian presidency in 2012, fuelling speculation that the Russian leader could return four years after an interim candidate is elected next year.

Sergei Mironov, speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament, added he was sure that after next March’s presidential ballot Russia would change its constitution for the following elections to lengthen the presidential term from four to five or even seven years. That could potentially see Mr Putin return in 2012 and remain president until 2019 or beyond.

“Since the president has taken the decision not to run for a third term [in 2008], our party will be ready to nominate Vladimir Putin in 2012,” Itar-Tass quoted Mr Mironov as saying in Monday in the Urals city of Ufa.

Russia’s 1993 constitution limits presidents to two consecutive terms, and Mr Putin has repeatedly said he will not change that.

But it has no bar on former presidents returning after a gap.

Mr Mironov was quoted as saying last week that the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, southern Russia, would be opened by President Putin, who would by then be back in the Kremlin.

Mr Mironov last year founded the Just Russia party as a second, left-leaning, pro-Kremlin party alongside United Russia, the established, centrist, pro-Putin party.

In March the Just Russia leader, a Putin associate from St Petersburg, the country’s second city, made a high-profile call to change the rules to allow Mr Putin to stand again in 2008.

He later withdrew the call, saying the president had made it clear he wanted to stand down, but called for presidential terms to be lengthened.

Mr Putin told foreign journalists in June he backed Mr Mironov’s idea of extending term limits.

The possibility of a Putin return has gained currency, with Vyacheslav Nikonov, a political analyst close to the Kremlin, saying repeatedly in recent appearances that although “the next president’s surname will not be Putin”, the president could return subsequently.

“We are not at the end of the Putin era, the Putin era is just beginning,” said Mr Nikonov. He added that only in 2026 would Mr Putin reach the age that John McCain, campaigning for the US Republican presidential nomination, is now.

Dmitry Medvedev, first deputy prime minister and one of two frontrunners to succeed Mr Putin, last week told foreign reporters Russia could learn from the west that politicians’ careers need not end on leaving high office.

While declining to comment on what Mr Putin might do after 2008, Mr Medvedev noted: “Very often in Europe a person who worked at the very top returns to politics in a different capacity.”

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