Medvedev Keeps Russia Guessing About Reelection Plans

MOSCOW — In the first unscripted press conference since taking office three years ago, President Dmitry Medvedev has declined to reveal whether he will run for the presidency next year but says he will decide “soon.”

He spoke for more than two hours at a televised press conference in Skolkovo, the site of a high-tech center the president initiated to spearhead his drive to modernize the Russian economy.

Medvedev fielded questions ranging from relations with NATO to Moscow’s traffic, but would not be drawn on the election issue.

“Finally, you’ve asked the question,” Medvedev quipped after 14 minutes in front of more than 800 journalists when asked about the March 2012 presidential vote. He added that “a format other than a press conference would be needed to announce a decision like that.”

The president said that a decision was coming soon, referring to a recent interview he gave to Chinese journalists.

“The elections have their rules and I will follow these rules,” Medvedev said. “If I decide to make such a statement, I will make it. Just as I said recently in an interview with our Chinese partners, not too much waiting time is left in this situation and this statement will be made quite soon.”

Speculation has swirled that Medvedev is emerging from the shadow of his mentor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and that he is laying the ground for a second term in the Kremlin. He has, for example, openly criticized Putin’s stance opposing international military action in Libya.

But last week, Putin appeared to take the initiative, announcing the formation of an All-Russian National Front, uniting various political forces in advance of the December 2011 elections to the State Duma.

Analysts speculated that the new grouping could serve as a vehicle for Putin to return to the presidency in 2012. He was forced to step down in 2008 by a two-consecutive-term limit in the Russian Constitution.

No Split With Putin

Medvedev downplayed speculation of a rift with Putin.

“My relationship with my colleague and my political partner Vladimir Putin is not just what is often referred to as a ‘tandem,'” Medvedev said. “In fact, it’s a relationship that has lasted for more than 20 years. We know each other very well and have a good relationship.”

WATCH: President Dmitry Medvedev discusses the “tandem”:

Medvedev added that he and Putin “share the same views and we have similar perspectives on the key questions of developing the country,” although he allowed that they didn’t agree on every detail.

“On strategy, [Putin and I] are close. Otherwise, we would simply be unable to work,” he said. “And if we were unable to work, this political partnership would break up and we would have a different political landscape.”

One area where they differ is the pace of economic modernization. Medvedev said his position “is perhaps a little different from the prime minister’s because, as I understand his statements, he believes that modernization is a slow, gradual process. I believe that we have the opportunity and the strength to carry out modernization more quickly, without any harm done to what has been achieved.”

Putin and Medvedev have said they will “sit down and decide” who will run for the presidency.

Putin has said that revealing who will be at the helm of the country for the next six years would intensify political infighting, signs of which have already appeared with only 10 months remaining until the presidential vote.

Khodorkovsky ‘Not A Threat’

The president appeared confident and relaxed throughout the question-and-answer session, a format traditionally favored by Putin — but one that Medvedev has shied away from.

Late in the press conference, Medvedev weighed in on the controversial case of jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Asked by one reporter if the release of Khodorkovsky would be dangerous for society — a question that elicited a ripple of applause from journalists — Medvedev said briefly, “It is absolutely not dangerous in any way.”

WATCH: Medvedev on Khodorkovsky:

Khodorkovsky and his business partner, Platon Lebedev, were arrested in October 2003 and later convicted of fraud and tax evasion.

Just as their sentences were set to expire last year, prosecutors filed fresh charges. In December, in a verdict widely seen as politically motivated, the two were sentenced to remain in prison until 2017.

Khodorkovsky and Lebedev began appealing those sentences this week.

Missile Defense

On foreign affairs, Medvedev warned that Moscow would be forced to bulk up its offensive nuclear arsenal if a deal was not reached with the United States for cooperation on a European missile shield. This, he said, would trigger a “return to the Cold War era.”

“When they tell us this [missile defense] is not aimed against us, I take that into consideration, but I understand that the countries in question do not yet have the capabilities that Russia has and they aren’t likely to get them in the next few years,” Medvedev said.

“Usually they mention Iran or others, but they don’t have such capabilities. This means [the missile shield] is against us. And if it is against us, then please invite us to cooperate or simply just say it openly.”

WATCH: Medvedev on missile defense:

Russia and NATO agreed last November to cooperate on a missile-defense system in Europe to counter threats from countries like Iran and North Korea, but a final deal hasn’t been reached. Moscow has since accused Washington of pushing ahead with its own plans.

Medvedev said that he has raised the issues with U.S. President Barack Obama and that forming a joint missile-defense system was crucial to avoid a dramatic backslide in security.

He also said he would not back a United Nations resolution against Syria, citing the implementation of the two previous resolutions for international military action on Libya this year.

“I will not support such a  resolution [on Syria] even if my friends ask me to. Why? Because Resolution 1970 and Resolution 1973 have been trampled on by some countries’ actions,” Medvedev said.

WATCH: Medvedev on Syria resolution:

In March, Medvedev backed the UN resolution authorizing the use of force to protect civilians against the forces of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and criticized Putin for saying it resembled a “medieval call for a crusade.”

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