Russians Play Guess Who's Running For President

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev and his Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are sending confusing signals about which of them intends to stand as candidate in next year's presidential election. Moscow is rife with speculation over which of the two men will emerge on top.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We are also following political uncertainty in Russia. That country has a presidential election next March and Russians still do know if their incumbent will run.

Here's NPR's David Greene.

Unidentified Woman: (Russian language spoken)

DAVID GREENE: It sure seemed like a big political announcement was coming. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev yesterday brought 800 journalists together for a news conference. The venue was a business school outside Moscow that he likes to show off as a symbol of Russia's modernization.

Unidentified Woman: (Russian language spoken)

GREENE: I have to ask the question I'm sure is on everyone's minds, the reporter said: Will you put an end to the guessing game over the election?

President DMITRI MEDVEDEV (Russia): (Russian language spoken)

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENE: Medvedev laughed. He seemed ready. Then he announced nothing.

President MEDVEDEV: (Through Translator) We are involved in politics, not because we want to be warm and cozy, but so we can get results. Decisions like the one you're talking about have to be made at the right moment, when all the right conditions are in place.

GREENE: The news will come soon, Medvedev said, just not now. The political drama was over. Still, Medvedev went on for another two hours, giving political analysts a lot to chew on, but no answer. Medvedev's challenge is that his mentor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, seems eager to return as Russia's president after a four-year hiatus. Some analysts saw yesterday as Medvedev signaling that he's not just going to step aside and let Putin take his job. The fact that he held a big press conference was significant.

Ms. MASHA LIPMAN (Moscow Carnegie Center): This is the first time, actually. This is a unique occasion.

GREENE: That's Masha Lipman, from the Moscow Carnegie Center. On one hand, she said, Medvedev gently distanced himself from Putin, suggesting, for one thing, that Russia can modernize faster than Putin believes. Then again, Lipman said, the fact that a 45-year-old incumbent president can't announce his re-election bid by now may be a sign that he's not in charge.

Ms. LIPMAN: His popularity is over 60 percent. His name is not associated with any major scandals, or big failures.

GREENE: But he is living in Putin's shadow. And for now, the great guessing game goes on.

Ms. LIPMAN: You have all four theories. Putin will run and Medvedev will not. Medvedev will run, Putin will not. Both of them will run and compete with each other in a kind of controlled competition, with an end, an outcome known to both men. And even somebody else, a dark horse.

GREENE: Is that possible in Russia?

Ms. LIPMAN: I don't think so.

GREENE: The idea of some third candidate emerging seems far-fetched because of Putin's hard grip on power. As prime minister, he's head of Russia's ruling party. Putin dictates to regional leaders, he stifles dissent and he owns the airwaves.

(Soundbite of music and singing in foreign language)

GREENE: While Medvedev is Russia's public face around the world, Putin is often busy burnishing his image at home. State-controlled TV often shows Putin as the tough, cool leader - driving a submarine, extinguishing fires, roaming Siberia to protect tigers. Here, he was chilling with young musicians.

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Prime Minister VLADIMIR PUTIN (Russia): (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: When Putin left in 2008 after two terms as president, he hand-picked Medvedev. Political commentator Yulia Latinina said he wanted someone who would get out his way if he wanted to return to the Kremlin.

Ms. YULIA LATININA (Political commentator): Putin selected the right guy.

GREENE: Latinina, like many analysts, believes that whatever takes place in March, the only truly important vote belongs to the prime minister.

Ms. LATININA: There is no election that is going to happen next year. We don't know who will be the president. But we know who will be the only voter. And the only voter is Mr. Putin. One voter is not an election.

GREENE: If Putin were to win an election in March, that could pave the way for him to serve 20 years as president when alls said and done. And maybe its worth noting: at that press conference, Medvedev said, quote, "you can't have one and the same person in power for 20 years." Whether that was a message is anybody's guess.

David Greene, NPR News, Moscow

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