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.
"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.
"There will have to be a system of balances to allow Putin and Medevedev to work together," says Sergei Mikheyev, director of the Center for Political Technologies, an independent Moscow think tank. "It's a kind of experiment. We've never had a situation like this before, so they don't know themselves whether it will work or not."
Putin offered one hint that the prime minister's role, traditionally that of a subservient technocrat who implements economic and defense policies set by the Kremlin, might be revised once he takes the title. "If voters give credence to Dmitry Medvedev, if he nominates me for prime minister, change will happen – both in the presidential administration and in the government," he said.
Experts say the balance of authority between president and prime minister might be altered without rewriting Russia's Kremlin-centered Constitution. "It's hard to picture Putin taking responsibility, and blame, for all the day-to-day detail that the government currently handles," says Mr. Petrov. "He might become a kind of strategic prime minister, who stands above all that."
The election campaign, from which several tough Kremlin critics were excluded on various legal technicalities, has put Medvedev in a virtual one-horse race against Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov; ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky; and an obscure political newcomer, Andrei Bogdanov. According to a January survey commissioned by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, less than 40 percent of Russians believe the election will be conducted honestly.
But Putin argued that "the election campaign is going quietly and calmly, and [this] tells us that the majority of citizens support the way things are going." And he slammed the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe for declining to send a delegation of election monitors under the tough restrictions imposed by Russia. "It's like they're trying to teach us something," Putin complained. "Let them teach their wives how to make borscht instead."
Putin repeated earlier threats that Russia might target its nuclear missiles on countries, including Russia's post-Soviet neighbor Ukraine, that deploy US antiballistic missile systems. And he attacked the United States for backing independence for the former Serbian territory of Kosovo.
"They are telling us that Kosovo is a special case. That is a lie," he said, without indicating how Moscow might react to Kosovo's independence declaration, expected next week. "We should elaborate a common principle for the solution of such problems."