As elections near, Putin assures Russia of a smooth transition
The Russian president hinted for the first time, however, that the balance of power shift in his favor if he becomes prime minister.
Vladimir Putin "rejoices" at his imminent departure from the Kremlin but wants the Russian public – and the world – to know that no unscripted changes will occur when he moves over to the prime minister's job following the almost certain election of his longtime aide and chosen successor, Dmitri Medvedev, next month.Skip to next paragraph
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"I have already received two gifts from God and the Russian people and now, under the law, my last term is expiring," a relaxed-looking and garrulous Mr. Putin told about 1,300 journalists assembled in the Kremlin for a marathon, four-hour valedictory press conference Thursday. "Now is no time to weep, but to rejoice in the fact that there will be a new opportunity for me to serve the country."
Times of power shift are typically dangerous moments in Russia, and Putin repeatedly stressed that the March 2 presidential polls will bring no turmoil, or even significant changes, in their wake. Virtually all public opinion surveys suggest that Mr. Medvedev will win at least three-quarters of the votes, in large part thanks to Putin's backing. Putin, who spelled out his own vision of Russia's future development in a major speech to the Kremlin State Council a week ago, told the journalists that a major policy address expected by Medvedev on Friday will only "expand" on the same themes.
"This was a performance that showed Putin is very much in control," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "He assured us that he will become prime minister, and that tells the Russian public that to vote for Medvedev means keeping Putin in power."
Putin dwelt on his eight years in the Kremlin, a period that has seen Russia rebound from a decade of weakness and political drift to become an economically booming and self-assertive world power. "For these eight years, I have been working like a galley slave and I have spared no effort while doing so. So I am pleased with the job I have done," he said.
And he rebuffed a reporter's question about rumors that he has secretly amassed a large private fortune during his years in the Kremlin. "That is true. I am the richest man in Europe and the whole world," he answered with a smile. "I am rich because the people of Russia have twice entrusted me the top position in such a great country as Russia."
Some experts describe the projected Putin-Medvedev combination as a "dream team," but others worry that Russia, which is used to having a single strong leader, could be destabilized if the two men quarrel. Putin insisted that won't happen. "There is personal chemistry [between us], and I trust him," he said of Medvedev, who has served as deputy prime minister and chairman of the state gas monopoly Gazprom. "We will build our relationship ... we will divide our responsibilities, and I can assure you that there will be no problems here," added Putin.