- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 2, 2007

MOSCOW (AP) — President Vladimir Putin said yesterday he would lead Russia’s largest party’s ticket in December parliamentary elections and suggested he could become prime minister, the strongest indication yet that he will seek to retain power after stepping down as president early next year.

Mr. Putin is barred from seeking a third consecutive term in the March presidential election but has strongly indicated he would seek to keep a hand on Russia’s reins.

He agreed to head the United Russia party’s candidate list in December, which could open the door for him to become a powerful prime minister — governing in tandem with a weakened president.

Mr. Putin called a proposal that he become prime minister “entirely realistic” but added that it was still “too early to think about it.”

He said that, first, United Russia would have to win the Dec. 2 elections and a “decent, competent, modern person” must be elected president.

Mr. Putin’s agreement to top the candidate list of United Russia sent an ecstatic cheer though the crowd at a congress of the party, which contains many top officials and dominates the parliament and politics nationwide. The move will likely ensure that United Russia retains a two-thirds majority in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, enough to change the constitution.

The White House took note of Mr. Putin’s move and said it was ultimately a matter for the Russian people to decide.

“We will be paying attention to the upcoming elections in Russia and urge them to conduct those elections in a manner that is free, fair and democratic,” National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

Leading the party’s ticket does not mean Mr. Putin will take a seat in parliament; prominent politicians and other figures often are given the top spots to attract votes, but stay out of the legislature after elections. The 450 seats in the Duma will be distributed proportionally among parties that receive at least 7 percent of the votes.

The popular Mr. Putin has repeatedly promised to step down at the end of his second term in May, as the constitution requires, but has suggested he would maintain significant influence. He offered some initial hints at his strategy last month when he named Viktor Zubkov — a previously obscure figure known mainly for his loyalty — as prime minister.

The move means that the next president “will not be a czar,” Kremlin-connected analyst Gleb Pavlovsky said on Ekho Moskvy radio. “There will be a new center of influence outside the Kremlin.”

Russia’s most vocal opposition alliance, co-led by the former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, applied yesterday to participate in the December vote but said it expected to be blocked by the Kremlin.

Only registered political parties can participate in the election to the State Duma, and none of the dozen political movements that make up Mr. Kasparov’s coalition qualifies.

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