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Putin's backing of 'strong' candidate surprises European experts

RIA Novosti

10/12/2007 20:15 ROME/BERLIN, December 10 (RIA Novosti) - Italian and German political analysts said they were surprised by Vladimir Putin's backing of a 'strong' presidential candidate, rather than a loyal supporter who would let him keep the reins of power.

Putin announced earlier today his support of First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as a candidate for the March 2, 2008 election. Given Putin's popularity and support of most of the legislature, his endorsement of his longtime ally is likely to guarantee Medvedev the presidency.

The candidate was officially proposed by the ruling United Russia party and three minor pro-Kremlin parties. Medvedev, 42, also chairs the board of directors of state-controlled natural gas giant Gazprom.

"This came as a real surprise for the West, which had expected Putin to propose a less weighty figure as presidential candidate," Roberto Menotti of Aspen Institute Italia said. "But he backed a strong candidate capable of taking on responsibility and making independent decisions."

Putin, while saying he will not violate the Constitution by remaining in the Kremlin for a third term, has pledged to retain influence in Russian politics. Various theories have been circulated in domestic and international media as to what position the president could opt for after the polls next year.

One of the scenarios was that Putin would back a weak successor with a view to returning to power within the next few years.

There was wide media speculation that Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov, 66, who held no senior political posts until his appointment as prime minister in September, would assume the presidency in a setup where key powers would be transferred to a government led by Vladimir Putin.

Menotti said Putin's decision showed that he wanted his policy course and Russia's sustainable growth to be maintained.

"Dmitry Medvedev is known in the West as a politician as well as a business executive, as Gazprom chairman. He would continue consolidating ties between politics and economics, which is crucial for the country's development," he said.

A senior researcher at the Center for European Policy Studies, Michael Emerson, said Medvedev was the most liberal figure in the Kremlin.

Alexander Rahr, a leading German expert on Russia, agreed that the nomination was a surprise, but said it sent a positive signal to the world that Russia would stick to its free-market aspirations.

"Medvedev's nomination is undoubtedly a surprise, as Western analysts had believed Putin would pick a tougher candidate from his retinue of 'siloviki'. But the surprise was a pleasant one, as Medvedev is not one of the group of ex-KGB officers, but a champion of the free market."

Another first deputy premier who had been widely tipped for the presidency was ex-defense minister Sergei Ivanov, 54, who is currently in charge of state-controlled aircraft-building and shipbuilding corporations formed recently to boost the industries.

Rahr said: "I believe Medvedev could be quite a strong president, and scenarios under which Putin would return to power, as predicted by Western analysts, are unlikely." However, the Kremlin's security bloc will not give away its positions easily, he said.

Last week's reports cited sources in the Belarusian president's administration as saying Putin could head the union Russia and Belarus have been trying to establish since 1997 after he steps down as president. The Kremlin dismissed the reports as "speculative fantasies."

Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov said on Monday Putin was likely to hold a referendum on merging the two ex-Soviet neighboring states soon after nominating Medvedev, and would head the union state once the idea was backed. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko would be parliamentary speaker in the new state, according to earlier media reports.

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