Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday declared his intention to seek re-election next March, a vote he appears certain to win.
The Russian leader chose an enthusiastic audience of the GAZ automobile factory workers in Nizhny Novgorod to make the announcement.
"I couldn't find a better place and moment for that," he said, to massive applause. "Thank you for your support, I will run for president."
Putin has been in power in Russia since 2000. He served two presidential terms in 2000-2008, then shifted into the prime minister's seat because of term limits, but continued calling the shots while his ally, Dmitry Medvedev, served as placeholder president. Medvedev had the presidential term extended to six years and then stepped down to let Putin reclaim the presidency in 2012.
While few doubted that Putin would run in the March 18 vote, a delay in announcing his bid was seen as part of the Kremlin's political maneuvering.
Putin's approval ratings top 80 percent, making him certain to win an easy first-round victory. Blue-collar workers and state employees form the core of his support base.
"Thank you for your work, for your attitude to your jobs, your factory, your city and your country!" Putin told workers. "I'm sure that together we will succeed."
Just hours earlier, Putin was asked about his intentions at a meeting with young volunteers in Moscow. He said he would decide shortly if he would seek another six-year term.
The upper house of parliament is expected to give the formal start to the election campaign later this month.
The veterans of past campaigns — Communist chief Gennady Zyuganov, ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and liberal leader Grigory Yavlinsky — all have declared their intention to run. They will likely be joined by Ksenia Sobchak, a star TV host who is the daughter of late former St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, who was Putin's boss in the 1990s.
The most visible Putin foe, Alexei Navalny, also wants to run, even though a conviction he calls politically motivated bars him from joining the campaign. He has organized a grassroots campaign and staged rallies across Russia to raise pressure on the Kremlin to let him register for the race.
Meanwhile, Putin also said that Russia would not prevent its athletes from competing at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics if they so desired.
Putin added that Russia accepted some responsibility for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decision to ban the country from the upcoming Games but said the accusations against Russian athletes banned for alleged doping violations were baseless.
The IOC on Tuesday banned Russia from the Olympics after evidence emerged of an "unprecedented systematic manipulation" of the anti-doping system.
The door was left open, however, for Russians to compete as an "Olympic Athlete of Russia" as long as they satisfy strict conditions that show they have a doping-free background.
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