Putin Says He Would Accept Premiership

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 18, 2007

MOSCOW, Dec. 17 -- President Vladimir Putin said Monday that he would accept the post of prime minister next year if, as is almost certain, his protege is elected president in March.

"If Russian citizens express their confidence in Dmitry Medvedev and elect him as the country's president, I will be ready to head the government," said Putin, speaking to a congress of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, which formally nominated Medvedev as its presidential candidate Monday.

Putin, 55, also said that he would not support changing the Russian constitution to bolster the office of the prime minister, which is theoretically weaker than the presidency. He said he had complete confidence in Medvedev as Russia's new leader and would be ready to work with him "without changing the distribution of powers between the presidency and government."

We "shouldn't be ashamed or afraid of transferring the key powers of the country, the destiny of Russia, to the hands of such a man," Putin said in a short address to a packed gathering at a conference center near the Kremlin.

The announcement was foreshadowed last week when Medvedev, after Putin endorsed him for the presidency, announced that he would like his boss and mentor to take the position of prime minister.

Neither Putin nor Medvedev, who walked into the congress together, said how they would share power. The prime minister, who serves at the president's pleasure, is a great deal less powerful under the constitution than the man who sits in the Kremlin. And Russian prime ministers have long been tasked with both faithfully implementing the president's policies and loyally taking the fall when they fail.

Analysts said it was hard to imagine the extremely powerful and popular Putin acting as subordinate to his untested 42-year-old protege. Speculation over Putin's future, which has raged for months, is likely to continue into a new administration.

"Personality may be more important than the constitution in this case," Georgy Bovt, editor in chief of Profil magazine, said in an interview. "Formal law is not always very important in Russia. The speculation will just continue. It's what makes Russian politics so interesting."

Bovt said Putin may be carving out a new model of governance whose form will only become apparent next year. Or, he said, Putin's stint as prime minister may be a short-term measure while Medvedev establishes his own power base within the fractious confines of the political elite.

"When he backed Medvedev, he made a very definite choice among the Kremlin factions," Bovt said, "and it will be very difficult for him to control any coming struggles without a formal role."

The mild-mannered Medvedev, who is first deputy prime minister and also chairman of Gazprom, the natural gas behemoth, is regarded as a relative liberal in a system that is dominated by former members of the KGB and its successor agencies. A lawyer by training, Medvedev has worked with Putin since they both served in city government in St. Petersburg in the early 1990s. He has no background in the security services.

Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the Panorama think tank in Moscow, said the creation of two power centers is a risky move for Putin if his intention is to remain the dominant political figure in Russia.

"I think after a year there is great uncertainty," he said in an interview. "If Medvedev is to become a real power, he will have to remove Putin. And I don't see Putin wanting to fade away."

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