MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Monday he could be a future prime minister, giving a clear sign he plans to keep power after his second term ends next year.
At a congress of the main pro-Kremlin force, United Russia, he also announced he would head the party’s list for December parliamentary elections, guaranteeing him a place in the State Duma (lower house of parliament).
“As far as heading the government is concerned, this is a quite realistic suggestion but it is still too early to think about it,” Putin said to thunderous applause.
“Two conditions must be met first. United Russia must win the election and a decent, capable and modern person with whom I work as a team should be elected president,” he said from a stage decked out in Russia’s national colors, red, white and blue.
Putin’s remarks fitted a scenario rumored for some time in Moscow — that the popular president could continue to wield power from the prime minister’s chair after he leaves office, installing a loyal but weaker figure as president.
Initial reaction from financial markets was positive.
“Irrespective of one’s view of Putin’s democratic credentials, markets respect the stability and prosperity he has brought to Russia, and should react positively to the latest development,” said Tim Ash, an emerging markets economist at Bear Stearns in London.
All polls published so far give United Russia, whose campaign slogan is “Putin’s Plan — Victory For Russia”, a huge lead for December’s vote, with at least 50 percent. The number two force, the communists, poll around 10-20 percent.
Putin made clear United Russia was the country’s key political force and called on delegates to “win in an honest fight”, ending speculation he might promote a two-party system by dividing his loyalties between two pro-Kremlin parties.
Using language reminiscent of Soviet times, he said: “United Russia has become a consolidating part of the whole Russian society, a force that maintains political stability and the realization of our social and economic programs.”
Communist propaganda used to call the party the “ruling and guiding force of society”.
Putin’s own popularity and the Kremlin’s control over politics and the media virtually guarantees whomever he anoints as his successor victory in the presidential vote next March.
Putin has not yet indicated whom he will back as his successor. Speculation has centered on first deputy prime ministers Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov, newly appointed Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov and a host of lesser figures.
Commenting on a suggestion he should head the United Russia party list for the December Duma elections, Putin said to a standing ovation: “I accept your proposal with gratitude.”
The head of United Russia’s central committee, Andrei Vorobyov, said Putin’s decision to head the list meant the party would secure an “unconditional victory”.
Putin’s second term as president ends next year and he is barred from running for a third consecutive term by the constitution, something he has repeatedly ruled out changing.
His plans have been the subject of intense speculation.
“This was the most logical decision,” said Gleb Pavlovsky, who heads the Kremlin-connected Effective Politics Foundation.
“It finally removes the so-called succession problem which suggested that Putin will have to hand over his influence to someone and go into the shadows after stepping back.”
“This is a revolutionary step because for the first time since 1991, the real influence may turn out to be elsewhere outside the Kremlin. There will be a president in the Kremlin, but not necessarily a national leader.”
Investors agreed that if Putin became premier, he would remain as Russia’s key figure.
“Putin will be in effect the head of state, it will just be as prime minister,” said Ian Hague, a partner at Firebird Management in New York which has $1 billion invested in Russia.
“The market will like it. The market likes whatever Putin does.”
Putin has presided over seven years of uninterrupted, rapid economic growth which has boosted Russian living standards and given foreign investors the opportunity to make huge profits.
Western government have criticized Putin’s human rights record, pointing to the Kremlin’s growing control over the media and the increasingly marginalized political opposition.
Additional reporting by Guy Faulconbridge and Oleg Shchedrov