February 28, 2008 / 9:34 AM / 12 years ago

Russians to vote for a new president but keep the old one

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian voters will hand Dmitry Medvedev victory in a one-sided presidential election on Sunday, a choice that should ensure his mentor President Vladimir Putin stays on as the power behind the throne.

First Deputy Prime Minister and presidential candidate Dmitry Medvedev (L) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin attend a meeting in Moscow's Kremlin, February 28, 2008. REUTERS/Pool

The Kremlin’s opponents say voters have been denied a real choice because the biggest television stations slant their coverage in Medvedev’s favor while election officials have barred some opposition challengers from running.

But the country is enjoying its longest economic boom in a generation — fuelled by record prices for oil and gas — and most people see the double act of Putin and Medvedev as the best hope of prolonging their new-found prosperity.

“If I am entrusted with leading the state I will simply be obliged to continue the policies ... of President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin,” Medvedev said. “I hope if we continue to work in this format, as a pair, it will benefit our country.”

Putin is constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive term. He endorsed Medvedev to replace him and has said he is ready to serve next as prime minister.

Most observers say that means the centre of power will shift from the Kremlin to Putin’s new office in the White House government headquarters, a short trip down the Moskva river.

Eyewitnesses told Reuters the lavatories on the White House’s fifth floor, where the prime minister has his office, are already being refurbished.

“Putin is going to remain the main guy,” said Chris Weafer, chief strategist with Uralsib bank.

Some investors have called the arrangement a “dream team” — not least because it reduces the chances of a messy fight between rival Kremlin clans over assets such as gas giant Gazprom and state-owned oil firm Rosneft.

HONEYMOON FOR HOW LONG?

Medvedev will become president of a vast country that has re-emerged as a force on the world stage.

Russia is the world’s second biggest oil exporter after Saudi Arabia, it is pouring money into military hardware and it is once again challenging the West on issues from Kosovo to Washington’s plan for a missile shield in Europe.

A softly-spoken lawyer with a gentler style than ex-KGB spy Putin, Medvedev nevertheless shows every sign of continuing Putin’s assertive policies.

But there are problems on the horizon: inflation threatens to spin out of control, the budget is vulnerable to a drop in oil prices and Kremlin-watchers say the honeymoon between Putin and Medvedev could turn sour.

“There will be a certain shake up of control and there will be a lot of unhappy people who will try to obstruct that. That is the main threat. That is the threat from Putin’s entourage itself,” said Georgy Satarov, a former presidential adviser.

The election itself has been short on drama. Medvedev, who at 42 will be the youngest Russian leader since Tsar Nicholas II, has over 70 percent support in opinion polls, about five times more than his nearest rival.

Medvedev refused to take part in televised election debates, citing a lack of time. He did not need the exposure: he already has the powerful state machinery behind him.

A minister this month ended a speech at a government meeting with the words: “Forward, Russia” — Medvedev’s campaign slogan.

Most Western election observers are not monitoring the vote, citing obstruction by the authorities. The handful that are coming say the election is devoid of real choice.

Former world chess champion and Kremlin opponent Garry Kasparov plans street protests the day after the election, though only a minority of Russians sympathize with his cause.

Slideshow (10 Images)

“Western media have to stop using words like campaign and election,” he said. “You are misleading your public. In Russia, instead, we are talking about a farce.”

“We think it’s necessary to show the authorities that we’re prepared to stand up to their plans to destroy democracy.”

-- For more on the Russian presidential election, read our blog "Operation Successor" at blogs.reuters.com/russia

Additional reporting by Darya Korsunskaya, Conor Sweeney and James Kilner; Writing by Christian Lowe; editing by Elizabeth Piper

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