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Putin may stay in power vicariously

His expected successor appears to cede some authority with a call for him to lead Russia as its next premier.

December 12, 2007|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — The soft-spoken bureaucrat just presented to the world as Russian President Vladimir V. Putin's handpicked successor appeared on state television Tuesday with a deferential plea: The country must remain under Putin's leadership.

Dmitry Medvedev, the Kremlin-backed candidate expected to ascend to the presidency in the election in March, called on Putin to head the next government as prime minister. Only Putin, he said, would be able to ensure national stability.

"It is not enough to elect a new president who shares [Putin's] ideology," Medvedev said. "I consider it principally important to preserve Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin in a most important job of the executive power."

With months to go before the vote, Medvedev's statement appeared to cede a degree of future authority to Putin.

Although the constitution bans anyone from serving more than two consecutive presidential terms, Putin is riding high on a wave of swelling oil prices and popular appeal amid widespread speculation that he would seek to stay in power. The question has been: How could Putin do so without tampering with the constitution or taking autocratic steps?

Putin did not respond Tuesday to Medvedev's suggestion. But some analysts believe that the speech finally tipped the Kremlin's hand.

"This is the scenario of the third term of Putin," said Andrei Piontkovsky, a prominent Russian analyst who is now a visiting scholar at the Hudson Institute.

Medvedev just received the golden nod Monday, when Putin appeared on television to endorse his longtime confidant's run for the Kremlin. Once anointed by the powerful and well-loved Putin, Medvedev was seen as a virtual shoo-in.

But by suggesting that Russia cannot move forward without Putin's leadership, Medvedev has raised confounding questions about how power would be balanced between the two men. In the cutthroat history of Russian politics, there is scant precedent for two strong leaders sharing responsibility, analysts pointed out.

Many analysts predict that Medvedev, who rode Putin's political rise from St. Petersburg to Moscow and into the halls of the Kremlin, would happily allow Putin to call the shots.

"It's a hierarchical relationship. Putin has always been the boss of Mr. Medvedev," Piontkovsky said. "If he becomes prime minister under Medvedev, then he'll effectively keep all the instruments of power."

But others were skeptical. Once Medvedev is in the Kremlin, they said, he will come into his own, building a new team and eliminating enemies.

"There will be two bears in one den, and that usually leads to general disorder, to sharp conflict or to the defeat of one of them," said Victor A. Kremenyuk, deputy director of Moscow's USA-Canada Institute.

Kremenyuk said that Medvedev was playing the role expected of him now, but that once he was president, he would be unable to tolerate a strong, independent prime minister.

"This is not the Russian style. The one at the top is the boss, and he knows better than anybody else what to do and how to do," Kremenyuk said. "If anybody tries to be independent, he is an enemy and must be punished."

The Russian presidency has loomed as a nearly omnipotent office since Boris N. Yeltsin changed the constitution in the 1990s to amass power. The prime minister, on the other hand, has filled a comparatively weak, heavily bureaucratic role.

Some observers are deeply skeptical that Putin, the former spy who rose from obscurity to masterfully manipulate the intrigue and infighting of the Kremlin, would be content to hand over the powers of commander in chief. Medvedev, a bureaucrat and lawyer by training, seems equally out of place among the strongmen who traditionally hold sway in Russia.

The seeming incongruity raises the possibility that the two jobs could be altered to suit the men. Because Putin's United Russia party captured more than two-thirds of the seats in the lower house of parliament, the Kremlin could amend the constitution to beef up the premiership while whittling down presidential authority.

Putin previously indicated that he was opposed to redistributing governing powers. But some analysts insisted the inherent awkwardness of his position could change his thinking.

"It's very difficult for me to imagine how the system would work," said Andrei V. Ryabov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. "Maybe they will be forced to make amendments to the constitution or adopt a new system so that Putin would control the military."

Medvedev was already adopting a presidential pose in Tuesday's address, hands folded neatly before him on the desk, Russian flag standing at his shoulder, speaking calmly and firmly into the camera. But as soon as he began to talk, Medvedev was praising Putin.

Russia absolutely must remain on "the course which prevented the collapse of the economy and the social sphere of our country, the course which prevented a civil war, the course conducted by President Putin," Medvedev said.

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