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It's official: Medvedev for (Russian) president

President Putin's chosen successor, he kicked off his campaign Tuesday with a Kremlin-sponsored speech.

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"It's possible the Kremlin has decided that Kasyanov, who was Putin's prime minister for four years, is too knowledgeable about how things work and too unpredictable to allow in the race, so they've settled on Bogdanov as the token pro-Western liberal," says Andrei Ryabov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.

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Other anti-Kremlin contenders have fallen by the wayside, including chess champion Garry Kasparov, who last month blamed authorities for making it impossible to even rent a hall in which to hold his nominating conference. Former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the liberal Union of Right Forces, pulled out in late December, saying he didn't want to legitimize a "farcical" election.

Last week, Russia's Supreme Court ruled that ex-Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky was ineligible to run due to his longtime residence in Britain.

"There is a great deal of behind-the-scenes struggle going on between insider interest groups, but any real competition between forces and ideas in the public sphere has been severely limited by the authorities," says Mr. Ryabov. "Therefore, these cannot properly be called 'elections' in the Western sense."

Medvedev, a lawyer who differs from many Kremlin functionaries in having no perceivable past links to Russia's security services, worked with Putin in the reformist St. Petersburg city government in the early 1990s and was called to Moscow as Putin's star rose in 1999. He worked as Kremlin chief of staff, was appointed chairman of the natural-gas monopoly Gazprom in 2000, and for the past two years has been deputy prime minister in charge of social projects.

Like Putin (whose own path to power involved sponsorship by the departing incumbent president, Boris Yeltsin) Medvedev has been careful to avoid any direct criticism of the current powers while staking out his own claim to be a modernizing reformer.

"These are our principles as I see them: first of all, freedom and justice; next, human dignity; third, prosperity and social responsibility," Medvedev said Tuesday. "Our goal is to combine Russian national traditions and the fundamental democratic values."

That's strikingly similar to Putin's own campaign rhetoric eight years ago, when he pledged to install a "dictatorship of law" and build a distinct "Russian democracy."

But Putin seems unlikely to fade rapidly away from the corridors of power as the unpopular and ailing Mr. Yeltsin did. Though some experts describe the combination of President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin as a "dream team," others suggest it could develop into a constitutional nightmare in a political system that's accustomed to having a single strong leader.

"Putin and Medvedev have known each other for 17 years, but this does not mean they know each other in their new roles," says Alexei Pushkov, an expert with the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow. "Conflicts are bound to crop up," as their teams fight for bureaucratic control and influence, he adds. "If he sees that his successor is having some difficulty in running the country, then Putin's return (to supreme power) is quite conceivable."

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