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Putin names a preferred successor

Times Staff Writer

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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

“We would like to propose to you the candidacy which we all supported: the candidacy of First Deputy Premier of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev,” said Boris Gryzlov, head of United Russia. “We think he is a most socially oriented candidate. . . . We think the next four years should go under the slogan of improving living standards.”

And then, calmly and deliberately, Putin gave the signal the country had 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.”

Putin himself remains the single greatest source of uncertainty in Russian politics. The president has made it clear in recent weeks that he’s not ready to relinquish power yet. He presided over parliamentary elections widely seen as a referendum on his rule, and sat back while followers filled the country with the slogan “The glory of Putin is the glory of Russia.”

“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.”

Many Russians have theorized that Putin will find a roost -- and some have demanded he do so -- as prime minister, head of the ruling United Russia party or as some sort of ill-defined “national leader.” Communist Party leader Gennady A. Zyuganov said Putin might try to revive a union with neighboring Belarus, another former Soviet republic, and become the head of that.

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But by declaring his support for Medvedev publicly, Putin has proved that he is willing to relinquish power, Shevtsova said, adding that Putin cannot remain omnipotent once he’s stripped of his Kremlin powers.

“The Kremlin role is such that, 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.”

Opposition parties griped angrily about the process.

“The name is immaterial to us, as we do not accept the very notion of a successor,” Union of Right Forces leader Nikita Belykh told the Interfax news agency. “People will vote for him the same as they voted for United Russia. What’s the point in discussing his personal qualities?”

The parties who met with Putin on Monday will meet with Medvedev in parliament today to begin planning his candidacy.

The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church praised Medvedev as “a modern and energetic intellectual . . . an Orthodox believer.” The Russian Council of Muftis announced that it believed Muslims too would support Medvedev, Interfax reported.

Sergei Mironov, speaker of the upper house of parliament, called Medvedev “brilliant.” A few weeks ago, Mironov had called on Putin to override the constitution and stay on as president.

The stock market hit new highs and Gazprom stocks surged on news of Medvedev’s anointment.

Still, some observers cautioned that in the volatile world of Russian politics, unexpected revelations could still be in store. “With Putin, we might still have some surprises,” Kortunov said. “I’m not sure he has a master plan in hand. I think he’s improvising.”

megan.stack@latimes.com

Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Heir apparent

Name: Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev.

Age: 42; born Sept. 14, 1965, in Putin’s home city of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) to university professors.

Education: Graduated from Putin’s alma mater, Leningrad State University (now St. Petersburg State University) in 1987; received equivalent of a law degree from the university in 1990.

Experience: Taught law at St. Petersburg State University, 1990-1999; aide to St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, 1990-1995; appointed deputy chief of staff for the Russian Cabinet, November 1999; appointed deputy chief of staff for acting President Putin, Dec. 31, 1999; headed Putin’s 2000 presidential election campaign.

In Putin’s government: June 2000: appointed first deputy chief of staff; October 2003: promoted to chief of staff; November 2005: appointed first deputy prime minister, charged with leading efforts to improve key sectors, including housing and healthcare; board chairman of state natural gas monopoly Gazprom, 2002-present.

Family: Married, one son.

Source: Times Wire Services


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