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Why Russia's Medvedev and Putin remain coy about presidential aims

Some analysts say a declaration by either President Medvedev or Prime Minister Putin could upend Russian politics well ahead of next year's presidential vote.

By Correspondent / May 18, 2011

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev speaks during a news conference at a business school in Skolkovo, outside Moscow, Russia, on Wednesday, May 18. Medvedev says he will decide whether to seek a second term when the election comes closer.

Ivan Sekretarev/AP

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Moscow

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev fielded dozens of queries Wednesday in his first major press conference since arriving at the Kremlin three years ago.

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But Mr. Medvedev avoided the two questions most journalists wanted answered: What's behind the rift between the president and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and when will Russians will know which of them will become the establishment pick in upcoming presidential elections?

"Such decisions should be made at a time when the conditions are right and they can make a conclusive political impact," Medvedev said in response to a question about whether he is planning to run for reelection. "The electoral process is governed by certain rules, which I will follow. If I decide to make such an announcement, I will make it," he said, adding that it might be soon.

Russia's leading politicians are locked in silence about their intentions and act as though any open discussion of the upcoming election cycle – Duma polls in December, followed by a presidential election in March – could destabilize Russia's political system. Indeed, many analysts agree that early declarations about presidential aims could upend domestic politics.

"The problem is that if either Putin or Medvedev openly declares himself as a presidential candidate, in our system it means he is not just a candidate but the next president of Russia," says Sergei Markov, a Duma deputy with the ruling United Russia Party. "In the US system, we know that Obama will face competition, and may not be elected. But if Medvedev were to say he's running, it means that Putin is not. And in that case, all official resources would immediately flow away from Putin and go to Medvedev. There would be chaos within Russia's elite."

The system of "managed democracy," instituted during Putin's first two terms as president, ensures that official resources and media access are handed to the Kremlin's chosen candidates, while undesirable opponents are stricken from the ballot, harassed by police and, it's frequently been alleged, drowned out by vote-rigging on election day.

When Putin reached the end of his second consecutive term – the limit stipulated under Russia's Constitution – he stepped down, but organized an elaborate process under which his longtime protégé, Medvedev, was elected president while he took on the powerful roles of prime minister and head of the ruling United Russia Party.

For the past three years, the two have ruled Russia in an apparently friendly "tandem," but many signs suggest that Putin is really running the store. Experts point out that Medvedev, who enjoys vast powers under Russia's Kremlin-centric Constitution, remains surrounded by officials appointed by Putin and has seemed incapable of following through on his frequent rhetorical pledges of reform.

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Medvedev answered a question about his relations with Putin by saying the two see eye-to-eye about most things, and "differ only in details."

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