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Putin’s popularity is important to Russia, Medvedev explains

By Ellen Barry
New York Times / October 1, 2011

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MOSCOW - President Dmitry A. Medvedev of Russia explained in a television interview yesterday that he had decided to step aside and allow Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin to return to the presidency because Putin is more popular.

“There remains a fairly high level of trust to the current president,’’ Medvedev said, referring to himself. “But on the other hand, I would like to turn your attention to the fact that, at the moment, Prime Minister Putin is the most authoritative politician in our country, and his approval ratings are somewhat higher.’’

“For some reason, nobody is talking about that,’’ Medvedev said in an interview that aired last evening on Russian television. “But in fact this is a very practical and very important thing which any politician must take into account, if he wants to serve the good of his country and not just jockey for position.’’

Medvedev announced last week that Putin will run for president, a post he held from 2000 to 2008 and can now occupy until 2024. Medvedev will take Putin’s job as prime minister.

Both Putin and his party, United Russia, are assured of winning in a political environment that is largely under Kremlin control.

The announcement has not gone smoothly. Hours after the decision was made public, Finance Minister Aleksei L. Kudrin, one of Putin’s most trusted and respected aides, said he

would refuse to serve under Medvedev. He was fired the next day in a televised meeting.

Meanwhile, Medvedev, who now heads the party slate for United Russia, apparently feels

pressure to make sure people turn up to vote.

“The choice is made by the people,’’ he said. “These are not empty words, this is absolutely so. Only people, only our citizens are capable of determining the final accents, by voting for this or that person or this or that political force or otherwise rejecting them. This is what democracy is.’’

Putin’s popularity, which soared a decade ago against the backdrop of war with Chechen separatists, is seen by insiders as central to the survival of Russia’s political system.

Though the Kremlin has some ability to manipulate ratings via television coverage, the government also spends lavishly to gather public opinion data and uses it to guide policymaking.

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