Putin "heir" on course to win Russia election: poll

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The popularity of President Vladimir Putin’s favored successor soared in an opinion poll released on Thursday and Putin critic Garry Kasparov pulled out of the contest.

Russia's First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev speaks during a public broadcast in Moscow December 11, 2007. REUTERS/RIA-Novosti/Kremlin

Putin, Russia’s most popular politician after nearly eight years in charge, this week anointed First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as his preferred choice in the March 2 election.

Medvedev, a former law professor, was already pulling away from other possible contenders, independent pollsters Levada said of a survey mainly carried out before Putin’s endorsement.

It showed 35 percent of people would vote for him, putting him 14 percentage points ahead of his nearest rival.

Analysts said they were watching to see whether Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, the strongest opposition challenger, would risk running. Former world chess champion Kasparov said he would not take part.

“There is no choice in Russia,” Kasparov told reporters in the town of Serpukhov, some 100 km (60 miles) south of Moscow, where he attended the funeral of an opposition activist.

“March 2 will just be the calendar date when the victor of the Kremlin power struggle is declared,” Kasparov said. “We understand that a decision has been made not to allow my registration even at this preliminary stage.”

Widely regarded in the West as a symbol of opposition to Putin, Kasparov’s support at home is slim and pollsters say he had no chance of winning.

Kasparov said official obstruction meant he had not even been able to rent a hall to hold a meeting of supporters, a formality needed to launch a presidential bid.

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Medvedev, 42 and board chairman at gas giant Gazprom, has offered Putin the post of prime minister if he is elected president, opening the way for the former KGB spy to preserve influence after he steps down in May.

David Kramer, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state, said Putin’s endorsement was likely to tip the balance towards Medvedev.

“I think there is some concern that the Kremlin-favored or even Putin-favored candidate will receive the benefit of media attention and other resources devoted to his candidacy the expense of others,” Kramer told reporters in Berlin.

Putin’s supporters credit him with cementing political stability and presiding over the longest Russian boom for a generation. Opponents say he has crushed dissent and crafted a political system dangerously dependent on one man.

The Levada poll, carried out from December 7 to 10, showed the second strongest potential candidate was First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, with 21 percent support, followed by Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov on 17 percent.

Both Zubkov and Ivanov have said they support Medvedev. Forty percent of those polled had said they would vote for whomever Putin anointed, said Denis Volkov of the Levada Centre.

Communist Party leader Zyuganov was the most popular possible presidential candidate from the opposition, the poll showed, with 15 percent support.

His party will meet this weekend to decide whether he will run in the presidential election. Zyuganov sat out the last vote, in 2004, allowing Putin to win almost unchallenged.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the nationalist LDPR which casts itself as an opposition party but broadly backs Putin, had 11 percent support in the Levada opinion poll. Zhirinovsky announced on Thursday that he would run.

(Additional reporting by James Kilner in Moscow and Sylvia Westall in Berlin)

Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Philippa Fletcher