Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Friday challenged the legacy of his powerful predecessor, Vladimir Putin, condemning the centralization of economic and political power at the Kremlin in what was interpreted by some as an early campaign move ahead of next year's presidential election.
Medvedev's statements in a keynote speech to investors at the annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum were a strong indication that he wants to distance himself from Putin, Russia's prime minister, in the run-up to next March's presidential vote.
Medvedev has been widely seen as the weak half of Russia's ruling pair, a placeholder while Putin awaits the opportunity to return to the presidency. Putin stepped down in 2008 because the constitution limited him to two consecutive terms; neither he nor Medvedev have announced whether they will run in next March's election.
Medvedev acknowledged that the government's expansion in managing the economy and the centralization of authority in the Kremlin under Putin was necessary in an earlier period of the country's post-Soviet development. But, he said, "this economic mode is dangerous for the country's future."
"The proposition that the government is always right is manifested either in corruption or benefits to 'preferred' companies," he said.
"My choice is different. The Russian economy ought to be dominated by private businesses and private investors. The government must protect the choice and property of those who willingly risk their money and reputation."
Talking to reporters after the speech, Medvedev aide Arkady Dvorkovich said he preferred not to give direct comment on whether that was a campaign speech, but said that "this was clearly a political speech, not merely a list of economic proposals."
Dvorkovich said that Medvedev wouldn't make an announcement on whether he will run for re-election until the autumn.
Putin's 2000-2008 presidency focused on concentrating power in the Kremlin away from the regions and raising the government's influence in the economy, particularly in the lucrative oil and gas sectors.
While Putin has hailed stability fueled by high oil prices as a major achievement of his time in office, Medvedev on Friday attacked the whole concept, warning that attempts to preserve stability could lead to stagnation.
Medvedev said that the country must begin to tackle the problem immediately to avoid "the point of no return from the (economic) models that are moving the country backwards."
"Corruption, hostility to investment, excessive government role in the economy and the excessive centralization of power are the taxes on the future that we must and will scrap," he said.
Chairman of auditor PwC International Dennis Nally, who has been visiting the St. Petersburg forum for several years, told The Associated Press that Medvedev now has "much more clarity in terms of the real challenges facing the Russian economy and his candor around some of those challenges is very refreshing."
Stephen Jennings, chief executive at major Russian investment bank Renaissance Capital, told the AP that Medvedev's statements sound "very logical and comprehensive," but "investors' concerns are with the implementation."
Alexei Mukhin, the head of Moscow-based Center for Political Information, said on Ekho Moskvy radio that Medvedev's statement clearly reflected his second-term aspirations, but added that his pro-reform calls would meet a strong resistance from the government dominated by Putin's fellow KGB veterans.
Medvedev renewed his calls to fight corruption, saying that "the loop on the throats of corrupt officials must get narrow all the time." He also called on the government to revise the privatization plan, which aims to raise at least 1 trillion rubles ($30 billion) by cutting the government's stake in such lucrative assets as oil companies and banks. The president said that Russia should consider not only lowering its stakes in some firms, but also selling off all in some of them.
Dvorkovich told reporters that the Kremlin could sell off all of their stakes in "competitive industries" which could affects bank such as Russia's second-largest VTB.
Also at the forum, Chinese President Hu Jintao said the world economy "is still overcoming the crisis rather slowly, although it began over two years ago."
A day earlier, Hu and Medvedev delayed the expected signing of a huge deal for Russia to sell natural gas to China. They did not specify reasons for the delay, but China previously has balked at Russia's aim to link the price to oil prices the way it does in Europe.
Irina Titova contributed to this report.