- The Washington Times - Friday, June 16, 2006

Russia’s next president may not be one of the two men widely seen as front-runners, according to Moscow’s ultimate political insider — President Vladimir Putin himself.

In his most extensive comments to date on Russia’s leadership succession, Mr. Putin told reporters on the sidelines of a meeting of Asian leaders in China this week he will definitely step down when his second four-year term expires in March 2008, but refused to crown either of the top contenders as his heir apparent.

Moscow handicappers say Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev, named first deputy prime minister in November, have made it a two-man race to succeed Mr. Putin, but the president hinted he might back a third candidate in the race.

Asked whether someone other than Mr. Ivanov or Mr. Medvedev could get his job, Mr. Putin said, “Yes, that’s possible, especially since the list of contenders now is not very long.”

The president said it was highly unlikely a completely unknown figure could emerge before the 2008 campaign, but added that potential candidates “are known to everybody but their names are not publicized.”

Despite complaints in the West over what critics say is an increasingly authoritarian governing style, the 53-year-old Mr. Putin remains overwhelmingly popular in Russia.

A poll in May found that 59 percent of Russians would support him if he ran again in 2008. No other figure in the government or the opposition received more than single-digit support.

But in a lengthy, informal talk with Russian and Western reporters Thursday in Shanghai, Mr. Putin insisted he would respect the constitutional ban on a third successive term, despite the favorable polls.

“You cannot demand that people respect the law if you yourself break the law,” he said.

Mr. Putin was a little-known St. Petersburg city official and former KGB spy when he was tapped by President Boris Yeltsin in 1998 to run Russia’s intelligence service, a move that propelled him to the presidency within two years.

In Shanghai, he demonstrated the no-nonsense style that has played so well with voters, brushing aside criticisms of his government by top U.S. officials such as Vice President Dick Cheney. Mr. Putin was in China for a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a grouping of Central Asian and South Asian powers dominated by Moscow and Beijing.

“We do not respond to provocative statements,” Mr. Putin said when asked about Mr. Cheney’s remarks in May criticizing Russia’s energy and human rights policies. “People in the United States with common sense understand us.”

He said U.S. officials are suspicious of the SCO, which for the first time invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to its summit, “because they can’t influence it.” He rejected U.S. criticisms of the recent political crackdown in Uzbekistan, a close Moscow ally, calling Washington a “bull in a china shop.”

Speculation on Russia’s presidential succession has been rising, even though the vote is nearly two years away. Mr. Ivanov, 53, is a longtime friend and fellow ex-spy from Mr. Putin’s KGB days, while Mr. Medvedev, 40, is a lawyer who hails from Mr. Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg.

Mr. Putin’s latest remarks are likely to focus new attention on dark-horse alternatives, including new Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Sobyanin and Vladimir Yakunin, head of Russia’s massive railways bureaucracy.

Far-left Communist candidates and leaders of Russia’s beleaguered pro-Western reformist parties are given little hope of victory in March 2008.

Mr. Putin is said to want to endorse a successor, but Moscow analysts said that naming his favorite too soon could undermine his own power by making him a lame duck.

And it may be premature to start writing Mr. Putin’s political obituary: Russian election officials ruled this week that the constitutional ban on a third successive presidential term does not prevent Mr. Putin from running again in 2012.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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