Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev believes that Russia's powerful prime minister, Vladimir Putin, will not run for a third presidential term in 2012.
Ever since Putin anointed Dmitry Medvedev as his successor in 2008, there has been speculation that he may return to the presidency in 2012 for two more terms - now extended to six years.
"Most likely he will not run for the presidency. Two terms is enough - well, he has had his two terms. What will they do in the future? Maybe he and Medvedev will swap places again," Gorbachev said in a rare interview with Sky News broadcast on Thursday.
There have been signs of growing tensions in Russia's political double act, with Medvedev straining to take a more independent stance. Most Russians consider Putin the most powerful of the two, and one U.S. Embassy cable released on Wikileaks described Medvedev as playing "Robin to Putin's Batman."
Putin's popularity in opinion polls is helped by his macho man image, which he has been cultivating since the late President Boris Yeltsin plucked him from obscurity and made him his successor in 1999 - a decision he later came to regret.
In the latest indication yet of the intentions of Russia's leadership tandem, top presidential aide Arkady Dvorkovich told the BBC in December that Medvedev wants to keep his job, but added that he and Putin would reach a joint agreement on who would run.
Gorbachev criticized the Kremlin's combative handling of a suicide bomb attack last month that killed 36 people at Domodedovo International Airport, Russia's busiest.
Several senior officials have been sacked amid recriminations over poor security. Pledges to find and destroy the plotters followed.
"Those who think that terrorism can be defeated with cannons and rifles are mistaken. Poverty, humiliation, instability, these are the factors that must be addressed," Gorbachev said.
He said Putin's regime is deviating from democracy by stifling political dissent.
"A couple of years ago I decided I would like to get involved in the creation of an independent democratic party but [Vladislav] Surkov, the deputy head of the president's administration, said: 'Why are you wasting your time - we will never register your party,'" he said.
The coalition of liberal opposition groups announced in September they would run in this year's parliamentary elections and put forward one candidate for the presidential poll next year. One of the coalition leaders, Vladimir Ryzhkov, said he feared the Kremlin might block the registration of the Party of Popular Freedom and vowed to hold protests in support of their right to register the party for the elections.
In an interview with the Kommersant newspaper last year, Putin called opposition protesters "provocateurs" and said they should be "whacked with a baton."
MOSCOW, February 10 (RIA Novosti, Alexei Korolyov)