President Dmitry Medvedev defended his decision not to seek a second term in an interview broadcast Friday, saying that the nation likes Vladimir Putin more.
Medvedev told Russian television stations that he and Putin share the same goals, but acknowledged that Putin has broader public support. "Putin undoubtedly is the most authoritative politician in our country, and his ratings are higher," he said.
Medvedev and Putin, who is now prime minister, announced over the weekend that they would swap places. Putin stepped down in 2008 after eight years as president due to a term limit, but he has continued to call the shots and is certain to win March's presidential election.
While state-controlled national TV have given ample coverage to both leaders, Putin has been far more astute in using television to cultivate his image as Russia's most powerful person, riding a horse bare-chested through the mountains, swimming the butterfly stroke in a Siberian river and driving motorcycles. The IPad-toting and Tweeting Medvedev looks boyish compared to his steely-eyed mentor.
Last weekend, Putin's United Russia party approved his proposal that Medvedev heads the party list for December's parliamentary elections and become prime minister after the election.
Russia's opposition has denounced the planned swap as a show of contempt for democracy.
Putin is eligible to serve another 12 years because the presidential term will be extended from four to six years, which would make him the longest-serving leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Liberal politicians and commentators pointed at steady erosion of Russia's post-Soviet democratic achievements under Putin's rule and warned that his return to presidency would likely set the stage for further crackdowns on freedoms.
Critics described Putin's statement that he and Medvedev had decided between them years ago which job they would take as evidence of their disdain for democratic procedures. They said it also revealed Medvedev's role as mere placeholder for his mentor.
Medvedev sought to counter such criticism by saying that the final choice will be made by voters. Many Kremlin critics have said that Putin has turned the elections in Russia into farce by adopting laws that that bar radical opposition from the ballot. The opposition has cited ample evidence of vote manipulations during the past elections.
"An honest and respectable vote count is impossible," Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov said Friday.
Medvedev insisted that his earlier statements that he wasn't excluding running for a second term reflected a possibility of a shift in public sympathies and weren't just a smokescreen.
"When I said that I didn't exclude that I didn't cheat anyone," he said. "Life could have made special, paradoxical corrections. What if electoral preferences would have changed for some reason?"
Medvedev said that he and Putin share "very close positions on most strategic issues, in fact on all strategic issues of the country's development."
"Having such positions, should we compete against one another?" he said. "Should we quarrel and swear at one another?"