Political mystery begins in Russia

Putin protege must define his own presidency

Dmitry Medvedev (left), the first deputy prime minister with no experience in elective office, was the choice for president of Vladimir Putin, who becomes prime minister. Dmitry Medvedev (left), the first deputy prime minister with no experience in elective office, was the choice for president of Vladimir Putin, who becomes prime minister. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press/file 2007)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Douglas Birch
Associated Press / May 4, 2008

MOSCOW - It might be a tale out of a 19th-century Russian storybook: A clerkish young lawyer apprenticed to a powerful man rises, through political intrigue, to become ruler of Russia.

But Dmitry Medvedev is not guaranteed a fairy tale ending.

The 42-year-old lawyer, who has long served as an adviser, fixer, and friend to Vladimir Putin, will be inaugurated as Russia's president Wednesday. The ceremony will mark the start of three days of pomp and circumstance that will include Putin being named prime minister Thursday and the annual Victory Day parade Friday in Red Square.

Medvedev, the scholarly son of university professors, who has a taste for designer clothes and heavy metal music, becomes the leader of the world's largest nation in geography, one of the richest in natural resources - and one of the most turbulent in terms of history.

In December, Putin picked Medvedev, then deputy prime minister, as his successor, even though he had never held elective office and has no political base of his own. The Kremlin dutifully engineered Medvedev's election in March.

Ever the loyal protege, Medvedev has pledged to "supplement and develop" Putin's programs. But Russia's new president has shown some signs of trying to move out of his mentor's shadow.

Medvedev has repeatedly promised to strengthen the rule of law, tame Russia's ferocious bureaucrats, and reduce the role of the state in the economy. Most strikingly, he has rejected the notion popular among Kremlin officials that Russia requires a "managed" democracy because of its unique history and culture.

All of these positions could be seen as implicit criticisms of Putin, who has presided over a growing bureaucracy, expanded the role of state enterprises, and shackled the political opposition.

To change Russia's course, Medvedev would have to battle the entrenched interests of bureaucrats and top government officials, many of them veterans of the Soviet-era KGB and other security agencies. Some have reportedly grown enormously wealthy during Putin's tenure, and will not welcome change.

It is impossible to predict whether the Medvedev era will be remembered as one of unexpected triumphs, tragic misadventures, or unkept promises.

"I think one thing is dead clear," said Yevgenia Albats, a prominent commentator. She predicted the two-headed state will lead to power struggles. "We have entered a period of profound instability in the country."

Medvedev assumes the presidency at a time of rising expectations domestically and escalating tensions with NATO and the West.

Average wages rose eightfold during Putin's eight years as president, from roughly $80 a month to $640. A new middle class is buying foreign cars and taking exotic vacations on the Red Sea.

But Russia's wealth rests on a narrow foundation: oil, gas, metal, and timber. On Medvedev's watch Russia's core industries could suffer if the global economic slowdown deepens dramatically.

Putin's Kremlin has challenged the West, reviving such symbols of the Soviet past as strategic bomber patrols. On Friday, for the first time since the Soviet era, a major military parade through Red Square will include tanks and nuclear missile launchers.

Now, it will be up to Medvedev's regime to tackle the nuts and bolts job of rebuilding Russia's bloated and outdated military forces. But Medvedev will inherit only a portion of his predecessor's power.

Putin has already expanded the premier's staff and responsibilities. And he heads United Russia, the dominant party, giving him direct control of parliament and regional political leadership.

The division of Russia's executive creates problems. It not only raises the possibility of power struggles between loyalists of the president and prime minister - it also makes it trickier for Medvedev to do what Putin did: claim credit for successes while blaming prime ministers for failures.

Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev was born in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, and received a law degree from the state university there. After teaching law, he worked with Putin at the St. Petersburg city hall, then in private industry before Putin recruited him to work in the Kremlin.

Medvedev has worked hard to implement Putin's goals. Even as chairman of Gazprom, Russia's state-controlled natural gas and energy company, he was seen as someone who didn't give orders but carried them out. But Medvedev has rejected suggestions that he will be Putin's junior.

"It is the president who sets out the main directions of domestic and foreign policy," he told Britain's Financial Times in March. "He's the commander in chief, he makes key decisions on forming the executive."

Medvedev's approval ratings have soared since it became clear he would be president.

Russia has a long history of one-man rule, and a recent poll by the authoritative Levada Center found that a plurality of Russians - 47 percent - favored a continued strong presidency.

"It's hard to say whether we are going to have a new president, or a puppet president," Albats said.

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