Putin's successor surprises analysts

Russian leader's choice has strong ties to business

December 11, 2007|By Megan K. Stack | Megan K. Stack,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MOSCOW -- President Vladimir V. Putin yesterday backed First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as a candidate to succeed him, abruptly snatching away the shroud of secrecy that has obscured the hunt for a new Russian leader.

The country has been waiting anxiously for Putin, who finishes his second term in office next year, to anoint a successor. Conventional wisdom in Moscow has long taken it for granted that whomever Putin tapped would be elected president.

Still, Putin's surprise endorsement startled many analysts. Medvedev, an ambitious young Kremlin bureaucrat with strong business ties, earlier had been seen as a likely successor to Putin. But in recent weeks, as an increasingly strident Putin railed against foreign influence and basked in the adoration of the masses, Medvedev's name was hardly heard, and his chances seemed to have dimmed.

Putin himself remains the greatest source of uncertainty shadowing Russia's immediate future. He has made it clear that he's not ready to relinquish power. Parliamentary elections last week, which his party swept, were widely seen as a referendum on his rule, and he sat back while his followers filled the country with the slogan "The glory of Putin is the glory of Russia."

Unlike Putin, who rose quietly through the ranks of the KGB and was still a virtual unknown when he ascended to the presidency, Medvedev hails from the less hawkish faction of the Kremlin. A law professor and St. Petersburg bureaucrat in Soviet times, he is chairman of Gazprom, the world's biggest natural gas company.

"The role of Mr. Putin is the most important issue: How these two will get along, whether Putin wants to have a formal position for himself," said Andrei Kortunov, president of the New Eurasia Foundation. "This will define a lot of the opportunities and restrictions Medvedev might face."

Putin appeared on national television yesterday, seated at a table in his Kremlin office. Medvedev sat at his left. Also gathered were the heads of four political parties: United Russia, Just Russia, the Agrarian Party and the Civil Force Party. Cameramen lined the office walls, and flashbulbs popped as the men went through a dialogue presented as a spontaneous discussion.

"We would like to propose to you the candidacy ... of first deputy premier of the Russian Federation, Dmitry Medvedev," said Boris Gryzlov, head of Putin's United Russia party. "We think he is a most socially oriented candidate. ... We think the next four years should go under the slogan of improving living standards."

Said Putin: "Many political events are pressed into a short period of time. Life is taking its course, and the law demands that we should begin our presidential campaign."

He commended the men for coming to a consensus, pointing out that the parties represented various layers of Russian society. And then, he gave the signal the country has been waiting for:

"As for the candidacy of Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev, I can say that I have been acquainted with him for over 17 years," Putin said. "We have been working very closely with him all these years, and I entirely support this choice."

The statement from Putin shoves Russia into a new, uncertain era, analysts said.

"When Putin points his finger and says, `I support this guy,' this ... means a lot," said Lilya Shvetsova, an analyst with the Carnegie Foundation in Moscow. "The elite, the observers, the business community will all be rushing towards this new leader."

Many Russians have theorized that Putin will become prime minister, head of the United Russia party or some sort of ill-defined "national leader."

But by declaring his support for Medvedev, Putin has proved that he's willing to relinquish power, Shvetsova said. The idea that Putin could linger as an omnipotent force once he's lost his Kremlin powers is unrealistic, she argued.

"Sooner or later, Medvedev will be forced to form his own team, his own political regime," she said. "Whether or not he wants to, he'll be forced to become independent."

It's a measure of the dense doubt that pervades political discussion that no two analysts seemed to agree on the meaning of Putin's endorsement.

Putin has surprised everybody by tapping a candidate approved by business interests and the West, showing himself as "bourgeois, big business, thinking about money," argued Stanislav Belkovsky, president of the National Strategy Institute.

Medvedev "could be glorified as a liberal, but he's just a very weak person belonging to the same philosophy as Putin," he said.

Megan K. Stack writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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