MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin anointed a successor Monday, assuring the nation that a longtime confidant who is chairman of the state-controlled gas company would steer the Kremlin along the path the incumbent has set for the past eight years.
Dmitry Medvedev, a 42-year-old first deputy prime minister who rode Putin’s coattails to the Kremlin, long has been regarded as a possible successor. If elected in March’s vote, he would become the youngest president in Russian history.
Medvedev generally is regarded as a moderate official with a slightly pro-Western tilt, but he has avoided making many strong impressions during his years in the public eye.
Putin will finish his second term in office next year and is banned by law from seeking a third consecutive term. The country, enjoying strong growth fueled by surging petroleum prices, has been waiting anxiously for him to name a successor.
“The moment when Putin points his finger and says, ‘I support this guy,’ this moment means a lot,” said Lilia Shevtsova, an analyst with the Carnegie Foundation in Moscow. “The elite, the observers, the business community will all be rushing toward this new leader.”
Medvedev’s ties to Putin date to the early 1990s, when they worked together in the St. Petersburg mayor’s office. Years later, Medvedev served as a high-ranking official in Putin’s first presidential campaign. When his old friend was elected, Medvedev reaped the benefits: He rose to chief of Putin’s staff and chairman of the board at Gazprom, the natural gas company.
He periodically has served as one of the friendlier faces the Kremlin presents to the West. He has bucked usual Kremlin methods by meeting repeatedly with foreign journalists. He talks about foreign investment and liberalizing Russian markets.
He charmed international power brokers at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, earlier this year. “We are aware that only democratic states can prosper,” news accounts quoted him as saying. “The reason is simple: Freedom is better than the absence of freedom.”
Medvedev had been floated as a likely presidential candidate for months. But as Putin railed against foreign influence in recent weeks, Medvedev’s name was hardly heard, and until Monday his chances seemed to have dimmed.
In Washington, U.S. officials declined to comment on the apparent succession.
“We’ll let the internal Russian politics play out on that,” said Dana Perino, White House press secretary.
Putin himself remains the single greatest source of uncertainty in Russian politics. He recently presided over parliamentary elections widely seen as a referendum on his rule.
Many Russians have theorized that Putin will find a roost as prime minister, head of the ruling United Russia party or as some ill-defined “national leader.”