MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin expressed support Monday for first Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as his successor, saying that electing him president would keep Russia on the same course of the past eight years.

There have been months of intense speculation on whom Putin would support to run in the March 2 presidential elections — along with the wider question of what Putin himself will do once he steps down.

Putin's popularity and steely control has led most observers to expect that whomever he supports would be certain to win the elections.

Putin had long been seen as trying to choose between Medvedev, a business-friendly lawyer and board chairman of state natural gas giant Gazprom, and Sergei Ivanov, another first deputy premier who built up a stern and hawkish reputation while defense minister.

Although Putin is banned by the constitution from seeking a third consecutive term in office, he has indicated a strong desire to remain a significant power figure. He has raised the prospect of becoming prime minister, and his supporters have called for him to become a "national leader" with unspecified authority.

Putin made the statement in a meeting with representatives of the United Russia party — which is his power base and dominates parliament — and of three other parties. The parties told Putin they all supported Medvedev.

"I completely and fully support this proposal," Putin said, according to footage shown on state television.

Although he holds powerful positions, Medvedev projects a mild-mannered public image and has been widely seen as an official devoted to Putin.

Putin reinforced that perception Monday, saying that electing Mevedev would pave the way for a government "that will carry out the course that has brought results for all of the past eight years."

The Russian stock market surged on the news, led not only by Gazprom shares but also apparently boosted by the end of long uncertainty over whom Putin would designate as successor.

Some have speculated that Putin could eventually try to return to the presidency — a goal that could be easier if Medvedev succeeds him, said Vladimir Ryzhkov, a prominent liberal politician.

"If Putin wants to return in two, three years ... Medvedev will be the person who will without a doubt give up the path for him," he said on Ekho Moskvy radio.

Associated Press Writer Mike Eckel contributed to this report.