- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2009

FROM COMBINED DISPATCHES

MOSCOW | Russia’s rush to amend its constitution just months after President Dmitry Medvedev’s election has led to speculation that former President Vladimir Putin wants to return to office now — before the financial crisis erodes his popularity.

Mr. Medvedev’s signature on the legislation Tuesday followed its quick approval by the Kremlin-controlled Parliament and all of Russia’s 83 provincial legislatures. Mr. Medvedev’s term is due to end in 2012.

Mr. Putin, now the prime minister, is still seen as the man calling the shots in Russia. He tapped Mr. Medvedev, his longtime protege, as his favored successor, ensuring a landslide victory in a March election.

Most analysts think Mr. Medvedev would step aside if Mr. Putin asked him to do so, but some think the president could try to strengthen his position at Mr. Putin’s expense as Russians become increasingly angry over economic difficulties.

Mr. Medvedev appeared to issue a veiled criticism of his mentor’s course Monday when he said the Cabinet’s anti-crisis program was “well-balanced but not ideal.”

The president quickly toned down his criticism by saying that “no ideal programs exist,” but some saw it as a rare, visible crack in the Putin-Medvedev tandem.

“Medvedev may wait until Putin loses his popularity as the economy worsens by the day and dismiss him,” independent political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin was quoted by online Gazeta.ru as saying.

But Igor Bunin, head of the Center for Political Technologies, said Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev would try to preserve their alliance because its collapse could incapacitate the government.

Mr. Medvedev also turned his attention this week to foreign affairs, once again expressing hope that Russia and the United States could mend ties frayed by disputes over U.S. missile defense plans and Russia’s August war in Georgia.

In a New Year’s wish to President-elect Barack Obama, Mr. Medvedev suggested the two nations could expand their cooperation on the basis of “pragmatism and a balance of interests.”

Excerpts of Mr. Medvedev’s telegram to Mr. Obama were released by the Kremlin.

Russia’s economic woes were reflected in a decision to devalue its currency, the ruble, again on Monday.

Russia’s central bank began a gradual depreciation of the ruble in November in response to slumping oil prices, a worsening economy and investors’ flight from emerging markets.

Mr. Putin has ruled out any sharp ruble moves. Russians are mindful of the 1998 currency collapse. Unemployment is on the rise, and real disposable income is falling.

Russia’s ruble policy is a topic of debate. Some economists say a gradual devaluation, designed to provide a softer landing than a big, one-off cut, is backfiring by pushing the economy faster into recession.

Mr. Putin said the exchange-rate policy was guided primarily by ordinary Russians’ interests.

“Unlike during the past crises, we do not shoot from the hip … like they are forced to do now in some other countries. We consciously use our reserves to enable an ordinary person to calmly take his own decision,” he said.

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