Medvedev endorses Putin for prime minister

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Another piece of the Russian political jigsaw fell into place yesterday as it became clearer how the landscape will look after presidential elections in March. Dmitry Medvedev, the first deputy prime minister who Vladimir Putin on Monday backed to take over from him, used his first public statements to entreat Mr Putin to return as prime minister. He also spoke of the need to continue the course that the country had taken under Mr Putin's leadership.

Although Mr Medvedev is seen as a man who would be business-friendly and not part of the hardline Kremlin faction (the so-called Siloviki), yesterday's announcement is the strongest indication yet of what analysts have been predicting for many months that the most powerful person in post-Putin Russia will be Mr Putin himself.

Mr Medvedev, who after Monday's endorsement was immediately installed as the overwhelming favourite to be Russia's next president, spoke to the nation during a televised three-minute address.

As presidential campaign speeches go, it was not up to much. Mr Medvedev, appearing even less charismatic than usual, was seated at a marble desk with the Russian flag behind him, wearing a black suit and dark tie. He sat completely still and spoke quietly, without emotion or gestures.

But his staid yet forceful, clipped delivery suggested that he has been learning from Mr Putin's speaking style, and his comments on foreign policy were textbook Putin. "The attitude towards Russia in the world has changed," said Mr Medvedev. "People don't try to educate us like schoolchildren; they respect us." A key pillar of public support for Mr Putin has been the feeling among ordinary Russians that he has raised the status of Russia on the international arena and rescued the country from national humiliation.

Mr Medvedev said that the key tasks for the new president will be to ensure "stability, an improvement in the quality of life, and the hope for long-term and stable development". There was not much suggested in terms of concrete policies, except for listing Russia's problems and saying that they should be "solved".

The short speech mentioned the need to improve conditions for old people, young people and village dwellers, rejuvenate industry and agriculture, make housing more affordable, and solve Russia's demographic problem.

According to Mr Medvedev, the best way to tackle this plethora of problems is to "retain the capable team of the current President". Only with Mr Putin at the helm could any new government work effectively, said Mr Medvedev, and as such he was "appealing" to Mr Putin to take up such a position after a new president is elected.

Mr Putin himself raised the possibility that he could become prime minister in early October, providing that the new president was someone with whom he could work "as a pair". There is certainly no doubting that Mr Medvedev, who has worked under Mr Putin since their days in the St Petersburg mayoral office in the early 1990s, fulfils the stipulation.

If Mr Putin does become PM, he can be expected to wield significant influence over the Federal Security Service, the KGB's successor. Mr Medvedev is one of only a few figures in the Kremlin inner circle with no KGB past.

Mr Putin would also be likely to retain behind-the-scenes influence in foreign policy and other sectors. Despite the vast power invested in the office of president, and the largely functional role currently attributed to the prime minister, analysts say it is hard to imagine a President Medvedev overruling a Prime Minister Putin. It may even be part of the plan for Mr Medvedev to step aside after a decent interval and allow Mr Putin to return to the Kremlin.

"This is one scenario that would allow Putin to return to power," said Mikhail Delyagin, a political analyst.

But some warned that the choreographed speeches of the past two days could be part of a ploy to boost Mr Medvedev's popularity at the elections, and that Mr Putin may not take up the role of prime minister after all. More than once in the past year, analysts attempting to second guess Mr Putin's moves have been proved horribly wrong. Major decisions such as the backing for Mr Medvedev on Monday usually come out of the blue and with no prior leaks or hints of what is coming.