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Putin Ready to Become Prime Minister

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Monday he was ready to become prime minister if his close ally Dmitry Medvedev succeeds him, giving Putin a way to keep a grip on power after he leaves the Kremlin.

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A 42-year-old lawyer with no political base of his own, Medvedev is virtually certain to win next March's presidential election since most Russians will vote for whoever the highly popular Putin endorses.

"If Russian citizens express their confidence in Dmitry Medvedev and elect him as the country's president, I will be ready to head the government," Putin told a congress of his United Russia party held near Moscow's Red Square.

"(We) shouldn't be ashamed or afraid of transferring the key powers of the country, the destiny of Russia to the hands of such a man," Putin added in his speech.

Medvedev, 42, was later adopted by the congress as United Russia's presidential candidate. Delegates voted 478-1 in a sober, Soviet-style ceremony held without debate.

In his brief acceptance speech, Medvedev listed priorities such as strengthening Russia's position in the world, preserving the Russian nation, looking after the young and the old.

"All this is in Vladimir Putin's strategy. I will be guided by this strategy, if I am elected president," Medvedev said.

"But carrying out an idea can only be successful with the participation of its author. I have no doubt that in the future Vladimir Vladimirovich (Putin) will use all his resources, all his influence in Russia and abroad for the benefit of Russia."

Putin signalled Medvedev, a first deputy prime minister and chairman of state gas giant Gazprom, last week as his preferred successor. The constitution bars Putin from a third term.

Analysts said the choice of a loyal longtime colleague signaled Putin's desire to keep a grip on power after leaving the Kremlin. The two men have worked together for 17 years.

Putin walked into the congress hall side by side with Medvedev to applause from the serried ranks of dark-suited delegates. Both men wore dark suits with white shirts and ties and stood to attention as participants sang the national anthem.

Pay Rise

In a brief speech, Putin said there was no intention to change the balance of power between the president and the prime minister in a future government.

Some commentators had speculated Putin might want to rewrite the constitution to beef up the role of the premier because most power resides with Russia's president, who is commander of the armed forces, sets foreign policy and picks the prime minister.

Putin praised Medvedev as a man whose "main principles in life are the interests of its government and its citizens."

He also announced a big pay rise of 14 percent for public sector workers, which will come into effect on Feb. 1, just over a month before the election. The military will get 18 percent.

In a further sign of Putin's intention to keep a grip on power next year, Russian media reported that Putin could send the Kremlin chief of staff to run Medvedev's election campaign.

The Vedomosti newspaper said Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Sobyanin and possibly the main Kremlin political strategist, Vladislav Surkov, would head Medvedev's campaign.

"For the first time a presidential candidate's campaign staff will be headed by the Kremlin chief of staff," Vedomosti wrote.

The Kremlin did not comment on Vedomosti's report.

In the past, successful heads of the election campaign have gone on to become chief of the Kremlin staff.

A senior United Russia source told Reuters the choice would mean Medvedev had a full set of Kremlin officials beside him as an extra assurance that he would stick to Putin's agenda once elected.

"By doing so, Putin will in fact hand over to Medvedev his full staff which will smoothly carry on with what it is doing now," the source said.

Opinion polls show more than 50 percent of Russians are ready to vote for anyone chosen by Putin. The Kremlin leader's support helped United Russia win more than two-thirds of seats in the lower house of parliament in an election on Dec. 2.

This victory would give Putin a powerful political base as prime minister.