By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Dmitry Medvedev delivered a clear message in a speech at a showcase economic forum on Friday: My vision for Russia is the right one, regardless of who is in the Kremlin next year.
Medvedev used the address to top officials and foreign investors to warn that Russia can only thrive if it works hard to modernize its resource-reliant economy and avoids the one-man rule that stretches back to tsarist times.
He spoke at an investment forum in St Petersburg, but a key member of his audience was back in Moscow -- Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the man who steered him into the presidency in 2008 and is expected to decide whether to take the top job back in an election next March.
In carefully coded language, Medvedev suggested that would be the wrong choice, and that he is the man for the job.
Medvedev warned that stability -- Putin's watchword since he came to power in 2000 -- could hide the seeds of stagnation, and said a system that hangs on the authority of a single man is unsustainable.
He took aim at Putin's soft spots, cautioning against an overbearing state role in the economy and saying Russia cannot stake too much on high energy prices -- a central factor in Russia's resurgence during Putin's 2000-08 presidency.
"I see this as a campaign message: Medvedev has decided to declare clearly that he is planning to stay for a second term, that the decisions he has taken are essential for the country," said Gintaras Shlizhyus, an economist at Raiffeisen bank.
TURNING UP THE VOLUME
The address echoed remarks Medvedev has made with increasing volume as the election draws closer.
Despite being the incumbent, he has cast himself as the candidate of change, playing to concerns among Russians and foreign governments alike that Putin's return would be a signal that Russia will not reform.
"Medvedev is assertively promoting his agenda," said Boris Makarenko, director of the Center for Political Technologies, a Moscow think-tank.
Makarenko dismissed speculation that Medvedev's statement that Russia must press on with his modernization program regardless of who is in power sounded like surrender in the shadow-boxing match with Putin.
Medvedev, he said, spoke of the 20-year sweep of Russian history since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 but also looked to the future in his address. "That's enough of a clue that a politician has a future and has ambitions," he said.
Still, one more speech will do little to fix Medvedev's big problem: the widespread impression that his three years in office have produced plenty of talk but far less action.
"All the words that are spoken are the right ones, but in practice everything is different," analyst Yevgeny Volk said.
Although he has repeatedly promised to decide soon whether he will seek a new term, Putin is still widely seen as the one who will make that choice. "Everyone understands that Putin has the last word," said Shlizhyus.
Volk said that despite their differences, Medvedev would not go far as to run for president against Putin, who may wait to decide after he sees how well his United Russia party does in December parliamentary elections.
"The intrigue continues," said Yulia Tseplyayeva, an economist at BNP Paribas in Moscow.
(Additional reporting by Maya Dyakina; editing by Mark Heinrich)