Russians wonder about course under Medvedev

The Baltimore Sun

MOSCOW -- With the apparent election of Vladimir V. Putin's chosen successor, Dmitry Medvedev, as Russia's new president yesterday, the country wades into uncharted waters as it reconciles the emergence of a new leader with the reluctance of its popular, czarlike ruler to fully relinquish power.

Russia's tumultuous history has always been grounded by one constant - that czars, general secretaries and presidents never shared the helm. That is expected to change when Medvedev is inaugurated in May and names Putin his prime minister.

Putin has made it clear he will use the post of premier as a means of maintaining oversight of the country he has ruled as president for the past eight years, and the economic and geopolitical resurrection he has stewarded.

Putin has stated repeatedly that Medvedev will carry out a course for Russia that Putin's Kremlin has established, rather than any agenda for change that Medvedev might propose. Medvedev, a longtime protege of Putin's and one of his closest allies, has dutifully agreed to comply.

What unsettles many in Russia is the potential for a moment in time when Medvedev steps out of Putin's shadow and begins asserting his own leadership. How will Putin, a leader known for his unyielding style of governance, accept the necessity of stepping offstage?

"There's this feeling in Russia that, sooner or later, there will be bickering and squabbles between the two camps, and what we may end up with is paralysis of executive power," says Lilia Shevtsova, an expert on Putin's presidency and an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. "The Kremlin elites will not know who to obey, and whose decisions are more important."

Medvedev, 42, would step into the job without ever holding elected office before, and without any power base of his own.

Though he is considered to be more moderate than Putin, analysts do not expect the Kremlin's icy relations with the U.S. and Western Europe to improve under Medvedev.

He isn't likely to veer from Putin's strong opposition to U.S. plans for a missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland, and he has already spoken out against U.S. support for Kosovo independence. Experts say Medvedev's tone probably will be less aggressive than Putin's, but the underlying policy won't change.

Medvedev is regarded by some as more liberal and Western-minded than Putin, and in recent speeches has talked of the need to renew the ideals of freedom and the rule of law in Russian society. "I am talking here of freedom in all its different manifestations," Medvedev said in Krasnoyarsk Feb. 15. "Personal freedom, economic freedom, freedom of self-expression."

However, Vladimir Milov, president of the Institute for Energy Policy in Moscow and a former Russian deputy energy minister, doubted Medvedev's commitment to democratic principles, stressing that Medvedev worked as a top Putin aide at a time when Kremlin policies grew increasingly authoritarian.

"It was Putin's administration headed up by Dmitry Medvedev that limited democratic freedoms in Russia," Milov said. "It's too naive to trust in all those tales about Medvedev being a liberal."

Though not a politician, Medvedev is known as an adroit lawyer and businessman, a technocrat who effectively carried out Putin's instructions, first as a top Kremlin aide and more recently as a first deputy prime minister in charge of tackling Russia's social ills.

Like Putin, he hails from St. Petersburg. Colleagues who knew him when he studied law there and worked in the St. Petersburg mayor's office say Medvedev's intelligence and tenacious work ethic made him stand out.

Medvedev owes much of his apparent landslide victory not to his own rapport with voters but to his mentor's image among most Russians as the driving force behind Russia's economic revival.

The stability that Putin brought to Russia in his eight-year presidency followed the rudderless, post-Soviet era in the 1990s under his predecessor, Boris N. Yeltsin, a period of economic decline.

Largely due to sky-high oil prices, poverty and unemployment have been reduced under Putin, and Russia's GDP has been growing at nearly 7 percent each year.

Russians believe the Putin-Medvedev tandem is the best guarantee that the country's revival will continue. But experts say the partnership carries risk. The post of prime minister is subordinate to the president. How much power is Putin willing to relinquish once Medvedev begins to assert his own authority?

"Conflict between Medvedev and Putin is inevitable," said Boris Nemtsov, a leading Russian liberal and a former deputy prime minister under Yeltsin. "But the tradition in Russia is that the one who is in the Kremlin holds all the power. If Medvedev is in the Kremlin, then he will win this battle between president and prime minister."

Exit polls had Medvedev scoring a landslide win, with 67 percent to 70 percent of the vote. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov trailed far behind with 19 percent. Early returns reflected the exit polls, with Medvedev way ahead.

Alex Rodriguez writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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