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Who succeeds Putin? Ask Putin

Russia's president, powerful and popular, is expected to have a large say in who follows him.

December 03, 2006|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — By showing up together at a Deep Purple concert here this fall, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Defense Minister Sergei B. Ivanov presumably were reliving more carefree days.

Ivanov was a teenager and Medvedev just a child when the British hard-rock group burst onto the international scene, a time when a clutch of Western bands gained near-iconic status among Soviet youths as symbols of social freedom.

The buzz here is that the two men are the leading contestants in a competition to be President Vladimir V. Putin's anointed successor when his second term expires in 2008.

So these were not just any two high-ranking officials, and their shared enthusiasm for "Smoke on the Water" may signal that they want to be viewed as friends and allies, not competitors.

They could, after all, end up as partners in a new power structure, with one serving as president and the other as prime minister.

"I am, of course, saddened by the fact that I have been made a contestant in some race, but it does not in any way affect my relations with Sergei Borisovich Ivanov," Medvedev told an interviewer for Russia's NTV news channel the day after the concert. The interviewer asked whether the two men had joined in the dancing.

"Well, we just applauded," the 41-year-old Medvedev replied.

What a missed opportunity, mused a columnist for the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta. "You must be thinking that shaking to Deep Purple is no big deal," the columnist wrote. "Yes, it is a big deal, sirs, if the problem of 2008 could be resolved quite easily by such a dance. The one who dances better becomes president."

With Putin enjoying popularity ratings above 70% and holding ever greater centralized power, a presidential endorsement is widely seen here as key to succeeding him. That means the current contest among Medvedev, Ivanov and other potential candidates for the big man's nod may well prove more crucial than the 2008 election in determining Russia's course.

The personality and goals of the winner could nudge the country toward greater authoritarianism or toward a more decentralized and democratic political system.

Russia's constitution bars the president from a third consecutive term, and Putin has repeatedly said he does not favor revising it to allow him to continue in office past 2008. But in nationally televised comments in October, he suggested he might continue to wield influence after he leaves the job.

That comment was taken by some as an indication that Putin might seek to exercise power from another position, such as prime minister, or that he envisioned a role like that played by Deng Xiaoping after the late Chinese leader retired from his official positions.

Putin, 54, has support from more than two-thirds of parliament, so speculation remains that a way may be found for him to stay on as president. One scenario has him giving in to a groundswell of public opinion and allowing the constitution to be revised.

But if he does step down, as most observers think he will, it is clear that whomever he backs as successor will stand a very good chance of being elected. A July survey by the respected Levada Center polling agency found that 40% of respondents said they would vote for a candidate proposed by Putin, compared with 14% who would favor someone else.

As long as the Kremlin elite stays united around one candidate, that person can expect strongly favorable coverage on all nationwide TV channels, which are either state-run or owned by state-controlled businesses. Few observers think an opposition candidate would have much chance of overcoming that advantage.

"If Putin names a successor and backs him, his chances of winning the presidency will be extremely high provided there are no huge surprises," said Sergei Markov, director of the Institute of Political Studies, a Moscow think tank with ties to the Kremlin. "Practically, we are talking about 99% probability here."

Markov said he believed Medvedev and Ivanov had the inside track.

Other possible candidates, he said, include Russian Railways President Vladimir Yakunin; parliamentary speaker Boris Gryzlov; Georgy Poltavchenko and Dmitry Kozak, influential presidential representatives to the southern and central federal districts; Mikhail Prusak, governor of the Novgorod region; and presidential Chief of Staff Sergei Sobyanin.

Markov also suggested the two presumed leading contenders might work as a team: Ivanov, 53, running for president with the understanding that Medvedev would be prime minister.

"This question has not been resolved yet, and this is just one of the possible options," Markov said.

Medvedev and Ivanov were thrust into the limelight as potential successors when they were appointed deputy prime ministers in November 2005. Medvedev was previously Putin's chief of staff, and Ivanov added the new title and broader responsibilities to his job as defense minister.

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