MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
The big question in Russia right now is this: Who will succeed Vladimir Putin as president? His two terms are up next March. Two men are widely believed to be prime candidates; and this week, the Kremlin put one of them in front of the microphones for his first major news conference.
NPR's Gregory Feifer reports.
GREGORY FEIFER: First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov is a former KGB officer like his boss, President Putin. The two men are close; they both come from St. Petersburg - and they share a similar tight-lipped, steely demeanor.
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FEIFER: In what appeared very much like a campaign presentation on Wednesday, a confident-looking Ivanov gave every indication he'd continue Putin's policies, including a growing confrontation with the West.
Mr. SERGEI IVANOV (First Deputy Prime Minister, Russia): (Through translator) I like to read about history, and I remember books describing the 1920s. You may remember the term, cordon sanitaire - for containing the Soviet Union - some countries in Europe today act in ways reminiscent of that policy.
FEIFER: Ivanov has never said he wants to be president, but that's irrelevant in authoritarian Russia where it's all but certain whoever Putin names as his favorite successor will become the country's new leader. Putin himself was plucked from obscurity by his own predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, in 1999. Putin's stamped his authority on the country by attacking his rivals, cracking down on political freedom and putting the state back in control over a growing part of the economy.
During his news conference, Ivanov suggested Putin's policy of consolidating companies into state-run conglomerates is good for industry and the consumer.
Mr. IVANOV: (Through translator) They make it easier to provide facilities and assemble modern management teams. Some progressive directors already understand the importance of good design. They're not just asking for government money to produce anything. They know products have to appeal to customers.
FEIFER: Ivanov isn't the only possible Putin successor. Russia's other first deputy prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, is the second presumed leading candidate. He too has never said he wants to be president. But according to at least one recent poll, most Russians would prefer to see Medvedev as president over Ivanov.
Medvedev comes across as a kindler, gentler top official - a boyish-looking former lawyer who's believed to be relatively liberal. Putin has put him in charge of overseeing the country's so-called national projects - high-profile government campaigns to improve housing, health care and other social welfare sectors.
Mr. DMITRY MEDVEDEV (First Deputy Prime Minister, Russia): (Russian spoken)
FEIFER: The day of Ivanov's news conference, Medvedev was also shown on national television dressing down several regional administrations for failing to distribute money to poor families. Some analysts believe Putin is fueling public speculation over Ivanov and Medvedev only to distract attention from his own lame duck status. Vladamir Pribylovsky of the Panorama group says Putin's real pick will be a third mystery candidate.
Mr. VLADAMIR PRIBYLOVSKY (President, Panorama Information and Research Center): (Through translator) It does not matter who the next president is. Whatever position he occupies next, Putin will continue running Russia from behind the scenes as the real leader of the Kremlin oligarchy that rules this country.
FEIFER: Other experts say Sergei Ivanov's KGB background makes him ideally suited to lead a country largely controlled by former security service and military officers. But many believed whoever succeeds Putin can't possibly enjoy his 80 percent approval ratings or the authority that comes with them.
Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.