Popular president

Oksana Antonenko, a senior fellow at the institute for international and strategic studies in London, said: "What he said is that it is really too far away and that he doesn't want to think about it now."

No Kremlin-backed politician has announced a bid for the presidency in the March 2008 election, prompting speculation over how Putin will hand over power.

Antonenko said the Kremlin leader, who is by far the most popular and powerful politician in the country, told the meeting that after 2008 "he will remain in some sort of role, but he didn't clarify what sort of role".

"Several times he mentioned that he is not interested in seeing the next president weakened," she said.

Zubkov possible

Earlier, Putin had said that there were "at least five people" who could run for the presidency next year.

"It's good that another person has appeared and that the people of Russia will have a choice"

Vladimir Putin, Russian president
He said one of these could be Zubkov, a little-known official who was confirmed as prime minister with overwhelming support in the lower house of parliament, or State Duma, on which is largely loyal to the Kremlin.

Deputies voted 381 in favour and 47 against, with eight abstentions. Putin's decision to pluck Zubkov from obscurity just ahead of the election has fuelled intrigue over who will takeover in March.

Many observers believe that the race will be minutely controlled by Putin's entourage to ensure that a loyal candidate wins.

Anti-Putin politicians who have announced bids, such as Mikhail Kasyanov, a former premier, have almost no access to the media or substantial funding and are considered to have little chance of winning any votes.

Speculation

Speculation has long centred on the joint first deputy premiers, Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev.

They have been given considerable coverage by the state media and are seen by most observers as likely front-runners in the Kremlin-backed camp.

The sudden rise of Zubkov, followed by the suggestions that he could make a presidential bid, astonished many political insiders. Zubkov fed the rumours on Thursday when he said a Kremlin run was possible.

"If I get something done here, in this post of prime minister, then I do not exclude that," he said.

Putin praised Zubkov as "a real professional" and said "it's good that another person has appeared and that the people of Russia will have a choice" in the presidential race.