Vladimir Putin says he stands for stability, but his critics say his return to the Kremlin next March could ultimately bequeath an era of stagnation and even turmoil in Russia.
The prime minister, who announced on Saturday he would seek a new term as president, prides himself on bringing order after the chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
But prominent critics, from former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, say his return could undermine stability unless he can shake the country out of inertia and torpor.
Even Putin's protege, President Dmitry Medvedev, said there was a danger of stasis in Russia in a speech to the ruling party on Saturday, just minutes before he suffered the humiliation of proposing Putin take back the presidency from him next year.
"Formalism and bureaucratization are very dangerous: they lead to stagnation and the degradation of the political system," Medvedev told a congress of Putin's United Russia party.
Putin handed him the chance to be president in 2008 after serving the maximum two successive terms as head of state, but is the driving force in their power "tandem." Medvedev's offer to stand aside in March was clearly stage-managed by Putin.
For many Russians, Putin's return cements a doom-laden view of prospects for the world's biggest country, which is also the largest energy producer and home to the biggest arsenal of nuclear weapons.
Gorbachev, the only other man alive to have held the top job in the Kremlin, referred to this feeling last week and said Russia faced turmoil unless its leaders embraced change.
"It is the very absence of change which threatens to provoke instability and put the future of the country in question," said Gorbachev, 80, whose reforms culminated in the Soviet Union's fall.
He said Russia was returning to the era of Leonid Brezhnev, whose 1964-1982 rule is widely portrayed as an era of stagnation when strong oil sales masked economic decline.