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Putin names a preferred successor

His choice, longtime confidant Dmitry Medvedev, is seen as slightly pro-Western.

December 11, 2007|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir V. Putin anointed a successor Monday, assuring his nation that a longtime confidant who is chairman of the massive state-controlled gas company would steer the Kremlin along the path the incumbent has set for the last eight years.

Dmitry Medvedev, a 42-year-old first deputy prime minister who rode Putin's coattails to the Kremlin, has long been regarded as a possible successor. If elected in March's vote, he will become Russia's youngest president.

Medvedev is generally regarded as a moderate official with a slightly pro-Western tilt, but he has largely avoided making strong impressions during his years in the public eye. In a measure of the uncertainty that pervades public discussion of Moscow's famously murky power plays, analysts questioned whether he is strong enough to hold his own amid the Kremlin's clashing factions, whether he can shake off Putin's shadow, and what Putin has in mind for his own second act.

The wildly popular Putin will finish his second term in office next year and is banned by law from seeking a third consecutive term. The country, enjoying strong growth fueled by surging petroleum prices, has been waiting anxiously for him to name a successor.

"The moment when Putin points his finger and says, 'I support this guy,' this moment means a lot," said Lilia Shevtsova, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. "The elite, the observers, the business community will all be rushing toward this new leader."

On the surface, Medvedev and Putin cut radically different profiles. Putin rose quietly through the ranks of the KGB and was a virtual unknown when Boris N. Yeltsin chose him as his successor in 1999. Medvedev has no known ties to the intelligence services and has served in a series of high-profile jobs under Putin.

But some analysts question how different the two men really are, and wonder how difficult it will be for Medvedev to become his own man.

Medvedev's ties to Putin stretch back to the early 1990s, when they worked together in the St. Petersburg mayor's office. Years later, Medvedev served as a high-ranking official in Putin's first presidential campaign. And when his old friend was elected, Medvedev reaped the benefits: He rose to chief of Putin's staff and chairman of the board at Gazprom, the natural gas company.

He has periodically served as one of the friendlier faces the Kremlin presents to the West. He has bucked usual Kremlin methods by meeting repeatedly with foreign journalists. He talks about foreign investment and liberalizing Russian markets.

He also charmed international power brokers at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this year. "We are aware that only democratic states can prosper," news accounts quoted him as saying. "The reason is simple: Freedom is better than the absence of freedom."

Medvedev had been floated as a likely presidential candidate for months. The other oft-mentioned contender was another first deputy prime minister, Sergei B. Ivanov. A former spy, Ivanov was regarded as the more hawkish of the two choices.

Putin's rule has been marked by increasing verbal animosity toward the West. The Russian president has sparred with Europe over election monitors, argued bitterly with America over missile defense, and dismissed his political critics as foreign-funded "jackals." As Putin railed against foreign influence in recent weeks, Medvedev's name was hardly heard, and until Monday his chances seemed to have dimmed.

"Only the most manageable and weak persons were among Putin's potential successors. And one of the weakest has won," said Stanislav Belkovsky, president of the National Strategy Institute, a Moscow think tank. "He could be glorified as a liberal, but he's just a very weak person belonging to the same philosophy as Putin."

In Washington, U.S. officials declined public comment on the apparent succession.

"We'll let the internal Russian politics play out on that," said Dana Perino, the White House press secretary. But U.S. officials have regarded Medvedev as easier to work with than Ivanov.

Medvedev's focus has been providing public services such as healthcare and education, and U.S. officials believe his attitude about governing is like that of many American politicians. In contrast, Ivanov just gave a hard-edged speech to a group of Russian retired military personnel about the need for Moscow to increase its nuclear forces to keep up with the United States.

News of Putin's endorsement startled many analysts.

Putin appeared on national television seated at the head of a small wooden table in his Kremlin office. Medvedev sat at his left hand. Also gathered around the table were the heads of four Russian political parties, including Putin's United Russia party. Journalists lined the office walls and cameras flashed as the men went through a dialogue presented to the public as a spontaneous discussion.

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