President Vladimir Putin ended years of suspense Monday by naming a longtime aide, Dmitri Medvedev, as his chosen candidate to succeed him in presidential elections slated for March 2.
"I have known him very closely for more than 17 years and I completely and fully support [his candidacy]," Mr. Putin said at a meeting with leaders of four pro-Kremlin parties, including the giant United Russia, which is expected to endorse him at its convention next week.
Putin has repeatedly insisted that he will step down, as Russia's Constitution requires, when his second term expires early next year. Surveys have indicated that up to 40 percent of Russians are ready to vote for any candidate the ultrapopular Kremlin leader nominates, and experts say Mr. Medvedev's ratings are likely to skyrocket once the state-run media begins to seriously promote him.
But nothing appears settled about Putin's own future, and the choice of a weak and politically dependent successor such as Medvedev suggests that Putin may be planning to wield power from behind the scenes.
"This solid front of support from pro-Kremlin forces means that Medvedev will definitely run and almost certainly be elected president in March," says Alexei Malashenko, an analyst with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "But Medvedev has no power base of his own; if he didn't serve Putin, his name would be completely unknown to the public.... It's hard to see him as a strong and independent candidate."
Medvedev has been first deputy prime minister for the past two years, and also serves as chairman of the state-owned natural gas monopoly Gazprom. A lawyer from Putin's hometown of St. Petersburg, Medvedev is considered among the most liberal members of the Kremlin's inner circle and is known for his ardent declarations of loyalty to the president.
Along with former Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, Putin's old KGB colleague, Medvedev has been long discussed as a likely heir.
"Medvedev is a compromise candidate" among Putin's inner-Kremlin aides, says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a top expert on Russia's political elite. "He was always obedient to Putin and seemed to have no opinions of his own. He was the weakest candidate, but it seems like his weakness turned out to be his great strength" in the race to succeed Putin, she says.
Some experts believe that Medvedev's nomination shows that Putin intends to retire from politics, despite many signs to the contrary, when his second term ends. "I have the impression that Putin doesn't want power itself, but just wants to make his own life easier," Alexei Venediktov, chief editor of the independent Ekho Moskvy radio station, said in a commentary. "He looks tired."
Eight years ago, Putin was plucked from obscurity by Kremlin imagemakers and molded into a successor to the weak and ailing former President Boris Yeltsin. Putin went on to defy all predictions that he would be a puppet of powerful behind-the-scenes forces and is now reckoned Russia's strongest leader in decades, with a public approval rating that soared above 80 percent in November.
"The difference between then and now is that the Kremlin was looking for someone to replace Yeltsin ... whereas today it's trying to find someone who will keep Putin in power," says Mr. Malashenko.
Other experts agree that the Putin factor is likely to remain dominant on Russia's political landscape. "Medvedev is a nobody, and that's why he was chosen," says Mikhail Delyagin, head of the independent Institute of Globalization Problems in Moscow. "He is a person who will be running to Putin for advice."