Probable Successor to Putin Backs Him as Next Premier

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 12, 2007

MOSCOW, Dec. 11 -- Russia's probable next president told the nation Tuesday he wants Vladimir Putin to stay on in government as prime minister next year, a statement that suggests how Putin intends to hold on to power after he leaves the presidency.

On Monday, Putin named First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as his favored candidate to replace him as president, a move that all but guarantees victory in an election scheduled for March. On Tuesday, Medvedev publicly repaid the favor, putting the official stamp on an idea that has circulated for months -- Putin continuing in politics as prime minister.

"I consider it of fundamental importance for our country to retain Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin in the most important position in the executive branch," said Medvedev, 42, who has worked with Putin since they both served in city government in St. Petersburg in the early 1990s.

"I ask him to give his consent, in principle, to heading the Russian government after a new Russian president is elected," Medvedev said. Under the constitution, Putin cannot run for a third consecutive term as president.

The Kremlin had no immediate comment on Medvedev's statement, but it is unlikely that Medvedev would have made such an offer without first clearing it with his patron.

Analysts in Moscow seized on the statement as a sign of big changes to come in Russia's post-communist system of government, which has featured a strong president served by a weak prime minister and cabinet and a rubber-stamping parliament.

"If, in fact, the president is going to accept, and he could still refuse, it means they are building a totally new regime, a new system of government, and burying the presidential power they have spent so much energy building over the last eight years," said Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Moscow Center. "The prime minister is the lapdog of the president, and they can't change the relationship between the prime minister and the president without dismembering the presidency."

During Putin's eight years in office, opposition parties have largely been sidelined as his government established control over key elements of the news media and moved to centralize power. The presidential handoff underway in Moscow now is at odds with the competitive nature of 1990s elections.

Putin's enormous popularity coupled with the new post would invest him with tremendous political strength, even in the face of a hostile president. The constitution confers significant powers on both the prime minister and the government, although modern Russian political practice has tended to favor the president.

Occasionally, the lesser branches of government have stood up to presidents. In 1998, for instance, the Russian parliament faced down President Boris Yeltsin and refused to approve his first choice as prime minister, eventually forcing him to accept Yevgeny Primakov.

"I don't think they are going to change the constitution, but there will be more power centers in the next government system, more checks and balances," said Vyacheslav Nikonov, president of the Politika Foundation, who is close to the Kremlin. "By definition, the presidency cannot be weak. By definition, the branch headed by Putin cannot be weak, and the next parliament will be stronger."

Putin wants to continue to play a decisive role, Nikonov said, adding, "It's easier to do that by dividing the government, creating different power centers, and then being one of those centers."

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