September 30, 2011 / 11:17 AM / 8 years ago

Russia's Medvedev defends Putin swap plan

MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Dmitry Medvedev vowed to overhaul Russia’s government next year and defended plans for a job swap designed to return Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin by saying on Friday that voters will decide who leads the country.

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev (L) and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin walk at the residence in Zavidovo in the Tver region September 24, 2011. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Seeking to allay concerns a new Putin presidency could mire Russia in economic and political stagnation, Medvedev promised in an interview to bring in new faces if his mentor wins the March 2012 election and makes him prime minister.

His remarks also appeared intended to placate Russians who feel their voices count for little in a political system dominated by Putin and his ruling United Russia party for more than a decade.

“The government must be renewed,” Medvedev said in the interview with Russia’s three leading television stations due to be broadcast in prime time.

“It will be a pivotal renewal of the government — a government consisting of new people. I think this is fundamentally important,” Medvedev said, according to a transcript released by the Kremlin.

Voters are free to do as they please in a December 4 parliamentary election and the presidential vote, he said.

“The choice is made by the people, and these are not empty words — that’s absolutely the way it is.

“Only people, only our citizens are able to give the final word by voting for a given person or political force, or rejecting it.” Medvedev said. “That is democracy.”

At the weekend Medvedev and Putin revealed their plan to switch roles, with Putin running for a six-year term as president and appointing Medvedev as prime minister in charge of the economy.

The announcement followed years of mixed signals about which of them would run. Putin, 58, was president from 2000-2008 and helped steer his loyal protege into office when the constitution barred him from a third straight term.

Both leaders said last weekend they had agreed on the plan long ago. This aggravated feelings among many Russians that they were kept in the dark while the country’s political future for years to come had been determined behind closed doors.

POPULARITY CONTEST

In the interview, Medvedev said that while he and Putin had a pretty good picture long ago of their plans for 2012, they could have altered them if Russians’ preferences had changed.

He suggested a primary factor in the decision for him to stay out of the presidential race and let Putin return to the Kremlin was that Putin remained more popular.

“Prime Minister Putin is without a doubt the most authoritative politician in our country today, and his rating is slightly higher,” Medvedev said.

A September poll by the independent agency Levada showed Putin’s approval rating unchanged from the previous two months at 68 percent, a six-year low but a level that would be envied by many Western politicians. Medvedev’s rating was 62 percent.

Putin’s popularity, together with the Kremlin’s sway over state media and political levers nationwide, mean he is virtually assured of election. The two-term limit means he could serve until 2024.

Over the past year, Medvedev had repeatedly said he might run for re-election and suggested he would be the right person to lead a country in need of economic and political reform.

In the interview, he said he and Putin “are part of one and the same political force” and “hold very close positions ... in essence on all strategic questions of the country’s development, and tactical ones, too.”

Under the plan revealed last weekend, Medvedev will lead United Russia’s candidate list in the December vote, in which it hopes to maintain its constitutional two-thirds majority in the 450-seat State Duma, the lower house.

Prominent Russian activists said this week that the vote would fall short of democratic standards and accused the state of dismantling the institute of democratic elections.

Medvedev, who has at times issued veiled criticism of United Russia and said Russia should move gradually towards greater political pluralism, suggested that view was unfounded.

“Any political figure can fail in an election, as can his political force,” he said. “Nobody is insured against anything.”

Additonal reporting by Alexei Anishchuk and Alissa de Carbonnel

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