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Putin May Back Dark Horse in 2008

President Vladimir Putin says his successor could be a little-known figure, suggesting insiders like First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov might not get the president's support.

Speaking to reporters Friday in Shanghai, where he was attending the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit, Putin for the first time suggested that a dark horse could wind up in the Kremlin after he leaves.

The next president could be "someone who is not very well known ... not necessarily one of two people," news agencies quoted Putin as saying, a reference presumably to Medvedev and Ivanov.

Putin said in May that he would name a preferred successor before 2008, when his term ends, explaining that he wanted to ensure stability and that, as a Russian citizen, he has a right to express his point of view.

But on Friday Putin shed little light on who that successor might be. The qualities he is looking for, he said, are "decency and honesty, professionalism and the ability to take responsibility for one's decisions."

"It would take just one instance of hiding behind someone else's back, and the country would break into pieces," Putin said.

Ivanov, who is also a deputy prime minister, and Medvedev, who also serves as Gazprom's chairman and formerly was Putin's chief of staff, have been leading carefully orchestrated campaigns to win Putin's approval.

Conventional wisdom has it that whomever Putin taps will win, given the president's overwhelming popularity and the state's control of the media and its marginalization of opposition parties.

Medvedev and Ivanov were promoted last fall to deputy prime minister under Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov. Since then, both have enjoyed generous television coverage on the state-controlled Channel One and Rossia stations.

Friday's comments, said Alexei Makarkin of the Center for Political Technologies, show the president is mulling over his options. "This undoubtedly lessens their chances of being picked," Makarkin said, referring to Medvedev and Ivanov.

Other potential successors include presidential chief of staff Sergei Sobyanin and Vladimir Yakunin, head of Russian Railways.

Sobyanin and Yakunin typically keep a low profile, meaning they might be thought to fall under the category of "little-known."

Andrei Ryabov, a political analyst with the Gorbachev Fund, said Putin was being deliberately vague to remind the political elite that he was still president and that he was not a lame duck.

"Only two days earlier," Ryabov recalled, "Medvedev went on television with statements reminiscent of a presidential program, and then Putin comes with his remarks about a dark-horse successor."

Nearly all analysts agree that Putin will not publicly name his choice until well into 2007 so as not to compromise his own power and prevent his would-be successor from being thrashed by political rivals.

The possibility, mentioned by some analysts, that Putin will simply let Medvedev and Ivanov battle it out for the presidency does not jibe with Putin's personnel style, said Vyacheslav Nikonov, Politika Fund president, according to Interfax.

Putin, a former KGB officer, is known for his secretive handling of personnel decisions. In March 2004, for instance, following the dramatic dismissal of Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and his Cabinet, Putin turned to Fradkov, who at the time was Russia's relatively unknown envoy to the European Union. Fradkov was also a former foreign trade official. He is not considered a presidential contender.

For now, Nikonov said, Putin will most likely promote his hand-picked successor to the post of prime minister in the fall of 2007.

(The Moscow Times 19.vi.06)

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