But Putin's endorsement, which seems to assure the 42-year-old Medvedev a win in Russia’s March 2 presidential election, does not come as a complete surprise.
The Russian president had long been expected to anoint either the “baby-faced” Medvedev or the “stern” former Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov as his successor. Putin elevated both men to the post of first deputy prime minister -- Medvedev in 2005 and Ivanov in February this year -- setting them up to compete for his favor. So when the leaders of four political parties arrived at the Kremlin today, saying they would back Medvedev, the whole scene appeared carefully choreographed.
Putin told the leaders of A Just Russia, the Agrarians, Civil Force, and Unified Russia that he agreed with their choice. "I have known [Medvedev] for more than 17 years. We have worked closely all these years and I fully support this choice."
The surprise was in Putin’s timing. His endorsement of Medvedev comes a full week before Unified Russia’s party congress on December 17, which had been widely expected to name Putin’s successor. The party, which Putin himself leads, captured two-thirds of the seats in the State Duma in this month’s parliamentary elections.
Just why Putin chose this moment to name Medvedev remains unclear. What is clear is that the Russian leader has picked a man who appears to be the most politically benign and most completely loyal.
RFE/RL Russia analyst Robert Coalson says Medvedev is considered one of the least charismatic and least lively of all of the candidates who were seen as possible successors to Putin. "In fact, I think he was chosen for that reason, so that he wouldn't in any way outshine Putin," Coalson said. "Despite being relatively young and energetic-looking, he's actually a fairly faceless person in the government."
Like almost all the members of Putin’s inner circle, Medvedev’s roots are in St. Petersburg -- Putin’s home city. Born in 1965, Medvedev graduated from the law faculty of St. Petersburg University in 1987. In the early 1990s, Medvedev worked at the St. Petersburg City Hall, on the foreign relations committee, which Putin headed.
In 2000, Medvedev headed Putin’s first presidential election campaign and was rewarded with the job of presidential deputy chief of staff. He was also made chairman of the board of state-controlled gas giant Gazprom. Two years after becoming the Kremlin chief of staff in 2003, Medvedev was put in charge of Putin’s priority social programs, with the aim of using rising oil and gas revenues to improve Russia’s health care, housing, agriculture, and cultural programs.
In contrast to KGB veteran Sergei Ivanov, who has often stressed Russia’s growing military and diplomatic strength in speeches, Medvedev presents a “softer” public image. He has refrained from stating his political views outside of the social programs in his current portfolio.
Putin’s selection of Medvedev will be a bitter disappointment to Ivanov. But RFE/RL analyst Coalson says the former KGB general is expected to fall into line. "Ivanov is a loyalist and I'm sure that Putin sat him down and had a good, long talk with him about what was going to happen and where he's going to fit in," Coalson says. "They're all team players and they all have developed the habit of pushing aside their personal ambitions in order to remain in the inner circle. And so Ivanov will come out and campaign actively for Medvedev, I'm sure."
Putin’s selection of Medvedev appears to confirm the Russian president’s desire to remain a key political player after March 2.
It remains unclear how Putin intends to dominate Russian politics after the end of his second term, but he has stressed that it is crucial for Russia to maintain its current political course -- and clearly suggested that that means maintaining a decisive political role.