Months of speculation over the identity of Russia's next president came to an end yesterday when Vladimir Putin announced that he would back his long-term ally Dmitry Medvedev in March polls. Mr Medvedev, a first deputy prime minister and chairman of the state energy giant Gazprom, and has long been seen as one of the front runners for the job.
"I think we have the successor. Putin's strategy has become clear today," the liberal politician Vladimir Ryzhkov told Ekho Moskvy radio. Analysts agreed it looked almost certain that Mr Medvedev would be Russia's third president.
Unlike many of Putin's inner circle, Mr Medvedev has no background in the KGB or its successor, the FSB. He is considered to be a relative liberal, and under his presidency Russian foreign policy may become less confrontational.
A vicious battle for influence has been going among the figures closest to Mr Putin, and Mr Medvedev will have these turf battles to control if and when he takes over. He is seen as a compromise candidate that will neither delight nor dismay either the "liberals" in the Kremlin or the "siloviki" hardliners.
"There is no figure who would be acceptable to all the people around the president," said Alexei Makarkin, a political analyst. "But Medvedev is not someone that will try to enact radical shake-ups or dominate everyone, and so many people will feel that he is not a dangerous option."
Mr Medvedev's candidature was suggested by a coalition of four political parties but analysts say the real decision-making would have taken place in the Kremlin, and probably by Mr Putin personally.
"I've known him more than 17 years, and have worked with him closely during this time," said Mr Putin. "I fully support his candidacy."
With the backing of Mr Putin and the machinery of the state, Mr Medvedev is almost guaranteed to win the March elections.
Mr Medvedev has long been in the picture for the top job. When he was made first deputy prime minister in November 2005 and given control of four "National Projects" aimed at rejuvenating the health, education and housing sectors many analysts believed it was the start of "Operation Successor".
But slowly, his star seemed to wane. The more hawkish Sergei Ivanov was also made a first deputy prime minister and there were rumours that their work would be compared, with the better man picked to succeed Mr Putin. Then, talk intensified of a "dark horse" successor a weak, stop-gap figure who would allow Mr Putin to return after a brief interlude. He is only banned from serving a third term if it runs consecutively with the first two.
Many thought this would be Viktor Zubkov, the little-known bureaucrat installed in September as prime minister. A dozen other names were thrown around, and with Mr Putin's oft-demonstrated penchant for surprise, everyone forgot about the former favourite.
Now though, Mr Medvedev has been given the nod by the only man who matters. "We can be clear that this is not a symbolic nomination, whereby Putin returns after a few months," said Mr Makarkin.
Mr Putin is nevertheless, expected to continue wielding influence, possibly as prime minister, and analysts said a return to the Kremlin in 2012 could not be ruled out. Mr Putin has finally laid his cards on the table, but exactly how the political landscape will look after next spring remains unclear.
Hard rock fan with close links to Kremlin
* In a country where CEOs are often in their twenties and billionaires in their thirties, Russia's probable next president is also young for the job Dmitry Medvedev is just 42. Quietly spoken and a good deal shorter than the diminutive Vladimir Putin, Mr Medvedev is not a charismatic politician. But those who know him say he is hardworking, loyal and able to win the trust and backing of those he works with. He is also reportedly a fan of hard rock, including Deep Purple and Black Sabbath.
Like Mr Putin and most of the current Russian leadership, Mr Medvedev grew up in Leningrad, now St Petersburg. He was born into a family of intellectuals in 1965 a quiet and conscientious only child who studied hard and played sport. Former neighbours told the Russian magazine The New Times that the young Dmitry never got into fights, never used bad language and was always dressed well.
He studied law at St Petersburg State University under Anatoly Sobchak, who a decade earlier had also taught Mr Putin. He completed a doctorate at the university in 1990. In 1991, when Mr Sobchak became mayor of St Petersburg, Mr Medvedev took up a post as his adviser, and worked in the city administration's Committee for External Relations. His boss was Mr Putin.
In 1993, he helped set up the Ilim Group, one of Russia's largest pulp and paper manufacturers. When Mr Sobchak lost elections in 1996, Mr Medvedev fully entered the business world,but immediately after Mr Putin was nominated as president by Boris Yeltsin on New Year's Eve 1999, Mr Medvedev was made deputy head of the presidential administration. "He's from the same city, the same team and the same university as Putin," says the Kremlin-linked analyst Sergei Markov. "But he doesn't have the same stature."
Since 2000 he has been chairman of Gazprom, the state natural gas monopoly which is often seen as an arm of Russian foreign policy, but analysts say that major Gazprom decisions are likely taken by Mr Putin himself.
He was made first deputy prime minister in 2005, and went from a politician with very little media exposure to one of the main characters featured on state television news.Reuse content