Putin’s man takes chance to stress continuity

A234234232.jpgSOCHI, Russia – Vladimir Putin’s chosen candidate for next month’s presidential election seized the opportunity to emphasize the continuity of power at an event on Sunday in Russia’s future Winter Olympics capital.

The widely televised gestures involving Dmitry Medvedev eclipsed the official reason for the occasion — an informal visit to Sochi by Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko.

Medvedev has shunned regular campaigning for the March 2 election, which he is expected to win overwhelmingly, but the 42-year-old first deputy prime minister has instead appeared repeatedly alongside Putin during business meetings and trips.

Sochi’s selection to host the 2014 Winter Olympics is seen as a key achievement for Putin and the joint event at the Black Sea resort looked certain to give another boost to Medvedev’s image.

“Traditions should be respected,” said Medvedev, dressed in full alpine ski gear at a skiing centre outside Sochi while handing his goggles to a cafe barman, copying a similar gesture made by Putin last year during a ski trip in northern Russia.

Putin also gave Medvedev a chance to play solo, in contrast to during previous joint appearances.

Medvedev was alone when he hosted Lukashenko and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov in Krasnaya Polyana, a venue normally reserved for presidential events.

Meanwhile, Putin waited patiently to offer tea for the three at his seaside residence at Bocharov Ruchei.

Belarus, described by some in the West as Europe’s last dictatorship, is Russia’s ally in a planned joint-union state that is part of Putin’s controversial diplomatic inheritance.

Some analysts have suggested Putin could take the yet to be created job as president of an eventual union state with Belarus in order to maintain political influence after he steps down.

But the Kremlin has poured cold water on chances of signing a union treaty anytime soon. Putin, Russia’s most popular politician, has said he will consider becoming Medvedev’s prime minister.

Medvedev, chairman of Russia’s gas giant Gazprom, has a record of tough encounters with Lukashenko during gas disputes and Gazprom briefly cut supplies to Belarus in January 2007 in a row over pricing that Putin later helped to patch up.

But Lukashenko stressed on Sunday there was no problem in ties.

He also made clear that he did not see Putin as a lame duck as he brought up the subject of Belarus’s plans to win a construction contract for one of the sites to be built in the run-up to the Winter Olympics.

“We have discussed this with your prime minister and first deputy premier,” he told Putin. “But of course all this needs your approval.”

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