MOSCOW (Reuters) - Surprise contenders could emerge in the race to succeed President Vladimir Putin, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on Sunday after ruling out running for parliament as a pro-Kremlin party candidate.
Putin says he will step down in 2008 after two four-year terms in office and Moscow’s political salons are abuzz with speculation about who he could endorse ahead of Russia’s presidential elections in March.
Medvedev, 42, is one of a small group of Kremlin insiders who has been tipped as a possible successor to Putin, along with new Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov and First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov.
Putin’s close ally Dmitry Kozak, recently promoted to the post of regional development minister, will not run, Russian media reported on Sunday.
“I’m now excluding the possibility (of me running) because I feel I am not ready,” news agency Interfax quoted Kozak, considered a contender in the presidential race, as saying.
Given Putin’s high approval ratings and the Kremlin’s strong control over the broadcast media, any candidate who wins his endorsement will have a huge advantage when voters elect his successor next March.
That has not deterred the extra-parliamentary opposition, however and one grouping, the Other Russia, on Sunday backed former world chess champion and Kremlin critic Garry Kasparov as its presidential candidate.
“Kasparov was confirmed by an overwhelming majority of votes as the single candidate from the opposition,” Other Russia spokeswoman Lyudmila Mamina said.
While he has a high profile in the West, Kasparov’s movement has failed to register in opinion polls. There are other opposition contenders including former prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, who declared his candidacy in June.
Some analysts have focused on the United Russia party, which says its main aim is to support Putin’s policies, as a way to elevate potential candidates ahead of a parliamentary election in December.
But, speaking a day before a two-day United Russia congress, Medvedev said: “I will probably disappoint you, but I am not going to be in the party list.”
He refused to directly answer when asked if he would run for president. “I can say the following: I am convinced that there will be a sufficient amount of fully worthy candidates, both expected and rather unexpected.”
Putin, who has not ruled out returning to power in 2012, has played a careful game to keep everyone guessing about who he favours as his successor.
He surprised observers by appointing Zubkov, a little known 66-year-old former head of an anti-money laundering unit, as prime minister on September 14.
Putin, 54, has said Zubkov is one of five people who could succeed him, though he didn’t name them.
“Not long ago no one was really visible (as a possible presidential candidate) and today there is specific number of people who are spoken about — that is good for a young democracy,” said Medvedev, who also chairs gas monopoly Gazprom.
Additional reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman in Moscow