Putin declares he will be Russia's prime minister

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Vladimir Putin has confirmed that he intends to become prime minister after he steps down as President next spring.

He was speaking to the congress of United Russia, the political party he supports, which won more than 60 per cent of the vote on 2 December in parliamentary elections that independent observers said were riddled with violations.

The congress also officially nominated Dmitry Medvedev as its candidate for the March presidential elections. Mr Medvedev was backed by Mr Putin to succeed him last week, and though officially he will run as a candidate put forward by United Russia and three other political parties, most analysts assume he was picked by Mr Putin.

The two men entered the congress hall together, walking to the podium amid a standing ovation, and Mr Medvedev gave a short speech listing Russia's successes over the past few years. He put these successes down to "Vladimir Putin's strategy" and said that while he intended to continue this strategy, he "could only be successful with the participation of its author".

Mr Putin said that he would accept the role of prime minister "if the citizens of Russia show confidence in Dmitry Medvedev". Mr Medvedev will have little difficulty winning elections, with recent polls suggesting that more than half of all Russians would entrust their vote to any candidate nominated by Mr Putin. It's now also likely that Mr Medvedev's campaign will strongly emphasise the "double ticket" nature of his candidacy.

Currently, the prime minister's power is secondary to the president and presidential administration, with little room for independent thinking or decision making. Viktor Zubkov, the incumbent, was an obscure bureaucrat with little public experience before being thrust into the job by Mr Putin.

But Mr Putin insisted he didn't foresee any changes in the distribution of power between prime minister and president if and when he takes over. He said he trusted Mr Medvedev and was happy to be "putting the destiny of Russia into the hands of such a man".

Analysts say that while Mr Medvedev is relatively liberal and is no puppet, he will almost certainly remain loyal to Mr Putin and can be expected to cede many of his presidential powers to the man he has looked up to as a mentor for more than 15 years.

"With Putin, you always need to read between the lines," said Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst. "Maybe the roles of prime minister and president won't be altered formally, but de facto there will almost certainly be a change, simply because the prime minister will be Vladimir Putin." Mr Oreshkin said it was quite possible for the prime minister to be stronger than the president without changing the constitution or formally reallocating responsibilities.

While not expecting any radical changes, many in the West have hoped that a Medvedev presidency will bring a less aggressive foreign policy. In recent months Russia has been on a collision course with the West in several foreign policy areas, including the Alexander Litvinenko case, the future status of Kosovo, US plans for missile defence installations in central Europe, and the Iranian nuclear programme.

Yesterday, Russia delivered the first shipment of nuclear fuel to the Bushehr atomic power station in southern Iran. Russia, which is building the Bushehr station under UN supervision, has been a strong opponent of the tough US stance on Iran. The fuel shipments have been delayed for months amid international pressure, but a US intelligence report released last month stating that Iran did not have a nuclear weapons programme has eased tensions somewhat.

Scientists at the plant on the Persian Gulf say the first reactor will be ready for operations six months after receiving the fuel.