MOSCOW Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was sent to Russia by God to help his country during one of its most turbulent times, the Kremlin's chief political strategist said on Friday in rare public remarks.
"I honestly believe that Putin is a person who was sent to Russia by fate and by the Lord at a difficult time for Russia," Vladislav Surkov, a staunch Putin supporter and one of Russia's most powerful men, was quoted by Interfax news agency as telling state-run Chechen TV.
"(Putin was) preordained by fate to preserve our peoples," said Surkov, who is also the Kremlin's first deputy chief of staff.
Putin, 58, was president between 2000-2008 before becoming prime minister and is widely viewed as Russia's key decision-maker.
The former KGB spy, picked by an ailing President Boris Yeltsin as his prime minister and heir apparent, restored national pride by sending troops back into Chechnya to quell a burgeoning insurgency and presided over a long economic boom following the chaos of the Soviet Union's collapse.
Popular with ordinary Russians, Putin crushed politically-ambitious business "oligarchs" who made their fortunes under Yeltsin, crafting a political system dependent on his own personal authority and sidelining opponents.
Neither Putin nor his 45-year-old protege, President Dmitry Medvedev, have said if they will run in the March vote. Public backing by officials of either of them, however, is rare.
The comments by Surkov, who served in the Kremlin under Putin throughout his presidency, will fuel criticism by opponents that a personality cult is building around the prime minister ahead of presidential elections in 2012.
Two months ago, a nun-like sect appeared in central Russia claiming that Putin was a saint and a saviour. A spokesman said Putin "does not approve of that kind of admiration".
Putin's alliance with the increasingly powerful Orthodox Church has unnerved the country's large Muslim minority and those who say it undermines Russia's secular constitution.
The Church has undergone a revival since the fall of the Soviet Union 20 years ago ended decades of repression under Communism, and Putin and Medvedev have endorsed it as the country's main faith.
(Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Jon Boyle)